I can’t tell if this is a Swans album or an Angels of Light record in disguise. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it doesn’t matter. In the years between Swans Are Dead and My Father, Gira released several solo acoustic records, a “pop” collaboration with Dan Matz, a “split” with Akron/Family, and five diverse Angels records. That 12 year run concluded with We Are Him, an album that might have been where Swans would have ended up had the project not been terminated. After listening many times to this multifaceted return from the dead, I still can’t determine what makes these songs more deserving of the Swans moniker than any of Gira’s other post-avian recordings.
There are two absolutely perfect songs on My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky: “No Words/No Thoughts” and “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” Both combine Swans’s most notorious qualities with something new and unexpected, which is what I wanted from this album more than anything else. Swans never stopped changing during their 16-year existence, both in terms of personnel and style, so part of me thought (and hoped) that Gira’s return to the Swans name meant that something very different was forthcoming. Change and purity of vision are practically the only things that didn’t change about Swans between 1982 and now.
For this record I half-imagined a continuation of Soundtracks for the Blind, with disparate tangents, more obtuse song structures, and probably lots more noise. Both the aforementioned songs deliver something along those lines, but in surprising ways. Instead of featuring tape loops, synthesizer noise, and spoken word samples, Gira highlights acoustic noise, abrupt stylistic changes, and heavily layered instrumental passages that are miles away from anything on Soundtracks, or even Swans Are Dead.
That said, Gira has populated his most recent record with more familiar sounds than alien ones. Were the entire record like the bonus disc packaged with some versions of My Father, I think my reaction would be more glowing, but I’ll say more about that in a second. So far as the primary music is concerned, there’s much on it that reminds me of Gira’s past. That’s not necessarily so surprising, though. Phil Puelo, Christoph Hahn, and Thor Harris were all members of Angels of Light at one time or another, so hearing bits and pieces of the Angels’ sound on this record is to be expected. And the same can be said about the songs that sound more unquestionably like Swans. Norman Westberg, Hahn, and Puelo were all Swans members, too, and all of them had a significant influence on the way the band sounded (Westberg probably more than any other).
With all that in mind, my expectations about how Swans should sound begin to look a little silly. The group weaves in and out of heavier, more obviously physical music and lighter, more ornate songs throughout the record, generally favoring the big sounds most commonly associated with Swans. Several passages feature a very strong Angels of Light influence, however; specifically, songs more focused on melody, like “Reeling the Liars In” and “Little Mouth,” which are reminiscent of Angels without being imitations.
Those songs are quieter, of course, but the difference between Angels and Swans can’t easily be reduced to qualities like volume or intensity. Remember that Angels of Light had several intense songs of their own, one of which led directly to the creation of this record (and “All Souls’ Rising” is just as powerful as anything in the Swans discography, if you ask me). Other songs, like “Jim,” “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” and “Inside Madeline” are split between percussion-heavy, driving passages and hushed, frequently pacifying melodies, thereby avoiding a simple loud/soft or Swans/Angels classification.
Gira has said in interviews that this is “unmistakably” a Swans record, but I have to disagree. It is unmistakably a record by Michael Gira, it just happens to have the Swans name affixed to it.
Gira has also suggested that he isn’t completely happy with this record. In one interview he called himself “cowardly” because he didn’t go far enough with “No Words/No Thoughts,” whatever that might mean. That’s far too strong a critique, because no matter how much this makes me think of Angels of Light or even Michael’s solo work, what he and his band have created is a concise and unlikely record of eight excellent songs. Whether Swans or “Michael Gira and the Young God Collective” is responsible for the music, there’s a ton of energy and power on this record, and it has me excited to hear it generated in a live setting. There’s also a few unexpected expressions and tangents peppering the record, so this isn’t just a war between Michael’s many musical personalities.
Swans has an almost sacred reputation thanks to the quality of their many records and the integrity of Gira’s approach to art and music, and much of what he’s done since Swans has fallen under the shadow of that renown. My Father manages to call attention to the many similarities between Swans and Angels of Light, and it highlights the quality of everything Michael has done since Swans Are Dead, whether his band consisted of Akron/Family or a more diverse cast. The distance between all of Gira’s work has been collapsed beneath the diversity and quality of this release, and the band names affiliated with each record are now, in most cases, just a matter of history and convenience. This is all the work of Michael Gira, project names be damned.
Michael may think he didn’t go far enough with My Father (and I may agree), but he definitely traveled into abstract and more satisfying realms with “Look At Me Go,” a 46-minute bonus disc included with certain copies of the new album. It is one long pastiche consisting of rhythms, melodies, and sounds from My Father, with the addition of non-album elements like moaning voices, looped pianos, feedback, synthesizer noise, and extra vocal performances from Gira’s daughter.
Part of me feels like this is where Michael ultimately wants to go with Swans. It sounds more like the natural sibling to Soundtracks for the Blind and it puts into practice what Gira has said about his lyrics and hearing himself sing (apparently he’s sick of hearing himself, so he vocalizes only briefly before being overwhelmed by the noise featured on “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”). It is, in some ways, many times more brutal than anything on My Father and far more adventurous, too. Yet, Gira has decided it has only secondary or “bonus” importance, which means I’m left waiting for a proper Swans record that goes completely off the deep end and explores the more abstract ideas highlighted on “Look At Me Go.”
My Father may not be what I expected or even wanted, but more than any heavy riffing or overpowering rhythm, that’s precisely why I can accept that this is a Swans record. If I see an Angels of Light/Swans split project in the future, though, my head might just explode.