Album Review: Swans’ To Be Kind

Douglas Markowitz

Released earlier this month, To Be Kind is the thirteenth studio album by American experimental band Swans. Photo courtesy Facebook.
Released earlier this month, To Be Kind is the thirteenth studio album by American experimental band Swans. Photo courtesy Facebook.

Swans are known both for looking supremely graceful and dignified and for being violently territorial, especially when defending their offspring. If you’ve had a run-in with the Canadian geese – a relative of the swan – that frequent our campus, you already know this.

Perhaps this duality – daintiness and viciousness – is what led a young Michael Gira to name his band after them. With their namesake secured, Swans dove fist-first into the New York No Wave scene of the 1980s and produced some of the most brutal, uncompromisingly abrasive music of the era. Music doesn’t get much heavier than early Swans.

Now, after a few decades and a couple dozen or so albums, an older, wiser Michael Gira and company have released their latest album, the follow-up to 2012’s The Seer. It’s called To Be Kind, and it’s Swans’ most accessible work yet.

Note that when I say “accessible” in this case I mean “less difficult.” Indeed, making music that pushes the boundaries of what listeners can withstand is Swans’ modus operandi; the band haven’t built the reputation they’ve earned for sparing their listeners from unpleasantness.

For example, To Be Kind is just over two hours long (yes, two hours!) and approximately a minute longer than The Seer. For the older album, many reviewers recommended a straight-through listening session, but doing so for TBK isn’t strictly necessary.  In fact, the new LP’s construction allows for full or spaced-out listening. When I listened to The Seer early last year, I did my two hours straight; it was one of the most grueling musical experiences I’ve had, and I have yet to return to it. I did the same thing last week with TBK, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Here, we see where To Be Kind gets its title; clearly Michael Gira designed it to be much less arduous than the majority of his work. Where The Seer is all apocalyptic squall with blustering wind effects, abrasive bagpipes, and punishing seriousness, TBK has some fun with itself. You may have heard the thumping off-kilter guitar dirge of “A Little God in My Hands,” on Spinnaker Radio, but that’s the tamest track on an album full of wild beasts. The 35-minute long, two-part album centerpiece “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” incorporates gnarly guitar riffs, field recordings of angry horses, and Gira shouting the French national motto of “LIBERTÉ! EGALITÉ! FRATERNITÉ!” During “Just a Little Boy,” the singer babbles the title phrase psychotically before launching into a final declaration of “I need love.”

Much of this sounds positively absurd at face value, but Gira revealed some interesting songwriting sources in a recent interview with Pitchfork. “Toussaint” was conceived as a biography of the Haitian revolutionary who was raised among horses. The outrageous, disgruntled chaos of “Oxygen” comes from a time when the singer was choking. And yet, from this nightmarish scenario comes one of the most enjoyable, hilarious songs of the year so far. Here, To Be Kind’s most impressive achievement comes to light.

With this album, Swans have created something that anyone can dive right into and have an exhilarating time. For Michael Gira, to be kind is to let fans have as much raucous fun listening to Swans’ music as he does making it.

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