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That Familiar Place of Foreboding and Allure – Swans’ “The Beggar”

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Quick – or in a slower manner, won’t matter – describe how an iceberg groans in the middle of the night, shifting in the darkness, a gleam still shining through. Tell us how much a human soul weighs or if love lives on when nothing else does. Make a bet on how many versions of you survive the denouement. One? Five? The likely none? The intriguing impenetrability, the answerlessness, of each of those asks and countless others, carries with it an essence of Swans’ aesthetic. It’s an understanding, subdermal, nearly unspeakable, that floods every pocket of my consciousness as at last I sit down with The Beggar, Michael Gira and company’s latest opus (a word that’s inescapable with each release).

The shrink wrap is removed with an apprehension bordering on ecstasy, a statement that, music-wise, ensures we’re talking Swans and no one else. I haven’t heard a note and yet I know a mountain is crashing down. I know a meadow and the city it surrounds are aflame. I know dynamics will overwhelm themselves that beauty will betray the true brutality of its nature and from an unrelentingness will be gathered a kind of mercy of intent. More than anything, I know what we all know, that nothing will quite be the same once we hit play.

I’ve been here, thus cued, at least twice before, at this table with this pen with the morning heat outside the window slowly rising in preparation to one day burn the ground down to the ground. The task is, as ever, a forbidding one that carries with it the promise of wonder, inchoate and brooding and relentless as it may often be but wonder no less. The very nature of Swans’ work ensures I’ll never quite encompass it while simultaneously never stop trying to do so so long as I retain the least vestiges of wit. One is compelled in that this band cannot be listened to from a neutral place. Their sound, its immensity and calling, hauls you in, absorbs you, you it. But I know at least this one thing going in: you cannot write about this band without submitting to the fundaments of language and heart. And so, we start.

Perhaps it won’t surprise that we begin with a measure of softness, a bare – if still resonant – six-note acoustic figure twice-stated and gentle as morning dew that, as any but the Swans-innocent would anticipate, is quickly subsumed by something of a thunderbolt of merged bass and (guessing?) timpani but in any case the fall of something sudden and mighty and now we’re home, that familiar place of foreboding and allure that is, however counterintuitively, a place of comfort as defined in a, shall we say, Swansian context. For all that, the track, “Parasite,” remains sparse in a luminously dense way and there, with that phrase, we may have, however accidentally, landed upon an essence, one that, in the case of “Parasite” bleeds outward from its beginning into a lengthy, near-religious drone, Gira intoning the lyrics at a priestly depth like a man whose soul is forever dressed in black, liminal in his motives and his movements here on earth. In short, true Swans and we move on, moved and preoccupied, consumers consumed.

Epic but, by Swans’ standards, softly so, gorging at a subsistence level, “Paradise is Mine” builds upon us with the gentle pulse of a dreamstate, Eos arisen from the morning depths and yes, this being the band it is, evocation of the gods is not just appropriate but as inevitable as the fact that the track, atmospheric yet primal, would evolve into something of a pastorale in ruins, beautiful in that wrecked way of theirs. “Los Angeles: City of Death,” contrary to the moroseness of its title, is in fact damn near a straight-up rock song, damn near chiming and sure as hell rousing in a manner befitting its three-and-a-half minute length, all attributes that suggest a momentary departure but worry not, the words and their delivery are as pitch black as ever. To a fleeting extent that impression of departure continues on the pithily titled “Michael is Done” where, in the cadence of a nursery rhyme gone to seed set against a delicate, tense background, the singer, with Jennifer Gira’s precision harmony, inventories as only he can – cussedly, unrepentant – the elements of his own ruin. The ultimately eruptive if oddly joyous catharsis does come, however, and Michael, much less his ensemble (see credits below), is not as done as he alleges but is instead, contrary to the song’s title, present as fuck.

While we’re tempted to cite “Michael is Done” as a cut that, in lyric and tone, exemplifies this band, to do so runs us smack into the fact that nearly every track they produce could readily claim that mantle. Furthermore, with Swans, one assumes they never intentionally shoot for the epic which, by the perverse logic of such things, means they hit that target with an eerie unerringness. Similarly, we trust that Gira’s lyrics are not, strictly speaking, meant to present as a self-held mirror but rather as a reflection of an Everyman, backed into a corner where purgation is the only way out, writhing in his efforts to find some essence of a kernel of a moment of human truth however transitory, his words the words of the ill-formed Übermensch caught in the wallowing mud, words that, by the very act of being spoken, are thereby universal. But here, by way of “The Beggar,” one wonders. Though, as pretty much always, wisdom dictates one not over-interpret – did we not learn that lesson at Dylan’s cryptic knee? – there is a glint scuttling about these proceedings, rough-hewn and brilliant and evasive yet seemingly true to the bone but then as I write this the understanding arises: we’ve been swamped in this belief before, the ‘is it or isn’t it’ question, then as now as unanswerable as ever and so we shrug our almighty shrug and do what we always do which is to take all this immensity in our mortal stride, a task that, as it happens, is thankfully made a bit easier by next track “No More of This,” a sweet (yes, sweet, believe it) gambol through the elysian fields of existential nullity like, y’know, y’do before “Ebbing,” against most odds, rather extends the vibe in its own jittery and, eventually, quite gorgeous fashion. Be not lulled, however, there remains “Why Can’t I Have What I Want Any Time That I Want?,” emerging from the ether to grow into some sonic equivalent of one of those blockbuster Ten Commandments-type movies albeit one more focused on the guttural impulses of the inglorious supplicants that all that glory left behind. Filled with raw yearning, its tempo as forcefully deliberate as a death march, the track, aside from likely being the piece that most emotionally echoes the image of the human heart stickered to the album’s sparsely-designed, typically iconic cover, also underscores, as does the album entire, Gira’s prowess as a producer.

And that’s just disc one.

Disc two, comprised over 53 minutes of just two cuts – “The Beggar Lover” and “The Memorious,” all of it culled and pulled from found sounds along with reconfigured tracks of the three previous records – is beyond the scope of this review if only because my will to continue has run out of ink.

But no matter. It is, in the end, all breath, breath that, here on The Beggar like ever before, Swans both capture and exude at a measured rate which, beyond reason, is, somehow, beyond measure.


Michael Gira – acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, vocals.

Kristof Hahn – lap steel, electric, and acoustic guitars, vocals.

Larry Mullins – drums, keyboards, vibes, orchestral percussion, vocals.

Christopher Pravdica – bass, keyboards, sounds, vocals.

Dana Schechter – bass, lap steel, piano, sounds, vocals.

Phil Puleo – drums, percussion, dulcimer, fujara, duduk, vocals

[special guests Ben Frost, Norman Westberg, Paul Walfisch, Lucy Kruger, Laura Carbone, Jennifer Gira]