Album Review: Swans‘ To Be Kind
by Nick Nihil
Over the course of their 30+ year history it’d be absurd to imply that Swans had ever wanted for confidence, but their latest (and possibly best) offering, To Be Kind, finds an even greater degree of swagger and seems to have, dare I say, an almost celebratory air. ‘Celebration’ being relative as one might get the sense of a ritual celebration wherein the victors of a slaughter dance while bathing in the blood of their enemies, but a celebration nonetheless.
I’ve always found Swans to be a hard band to describe to people unfamiliar with them; brutal and heavy, but nothing like death or black metal. Goth-y for a period, but not to the degree of, say, ‘80s 4AD bands. Droney, but not like spaced out hippies or new age crystal pixies. Noisy, but never aimless. They’ve never been a band you could compare to anybody else, though you can find many traces of them in other bands. Indeed, To Be Kind finds all of these elements working in perfect balance. And they’ve never grooved like they do on this record. The first single, “A Little God In My Hands,” feels almost funky and even features punctuations by a horn section. “Just a Little Boy” slinks and slithers through what feels like a stream-of-consciousness improvisation but never seems unfocused as creepy laugh-track hits and explosive crescendos inform direction and intention. “She Loves Us!” also surprises with a surprisingly buoyant, up-tempo beat that underscores Gira’s staccato screams and unsettling background chants.
This record is more streamlined and sonically focused than the sprawling, apocalyptic glory that was The Seer (which many already seemed to consider the band’s greatest work), and part of it has to do with production. This sounds like a live album, or rather, what Swans ideally sounds like live. Part of that may be that they started hammering these songs into shape while on tour for The Seer, so much so that Gira has said that, by the end of that tour, they were probably playing more new material at the shows than anything they released. And the sound of the record carries an organic, raw, unified sound, which makes the climax of this albums 30+ minute epic, “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” sound even more explosive and dangerous than the last album’s 30-minute epic title track.
Everything about this record sounds more dangerous and live than any other Swans record, and that may have to do with bringing in John Congleton to engineer. Congleton seems to be becoming one of the industry’s “it” men, especially among more alternative, independent, and experimental acts. For those who don’t know, he’s produced or co-produced the last three St. Vincent records plus her collaboration with David Byrne, Xiu Xiu’s most recent (plus mixing their previous), Cloud Nothings’ newest, Okkervil River’s last two. . . you get the picture.
This record also comes in a year where, so far, a number of our more daring and interesting artists (at least to me) are making major ‘statement’ records. St. Vincent seems to be asserting herself as pop’s dark queen with her incredibly confident and viciously cutting self-titled, Carla Bozulich released her ‘pop’ record to universal accolades, a record so strong and unique that it should prove without a doubt she belongs to be mentioned along with Nick Cave and Tom Waits in discussions of great modern day songwriters, Xiu Xiu announced their latest as their darkest record and somehow they actually delivered on that, making the record both a step forward, possibly their strongest album from start to finish, and one that will satisfy their fans of their earlier material who were feeling the band may have gone too ‘pop’ on their last few albums (interestingly, both Xiu Xiu and Bozulich are slated to open for Swans on their tour this year, and Annie Clark provided a number of the backing vocals on To Be Kind). So what is Swans stating on To Be Kind? What is the message? To me, this is the feel of a band that exists far beyond the physical humanity of its members, a band that has become a spiritual presence, almost deistic in its power with the power to crush and remake worlds as it sees fit. This is them operating at as full a capacity as they ever have, and it’s them knowing that they are. This is them toying with the rest of the rock world. This power has always been present, but never has if felt so tangible, so much like its at your doorstep.