How to interpret the title of the new Swans album? Is Michael Gira – the only consistent member of the group he founded with unassailable, blistering New York No Wave urgency in 1982 – asking what the meaning of the word ‘leaving is’, in the manner of a child unwitting asking aimless questions that take on a metaphysical hue? Or is he concerned with the idea of somehow leaving a legacy? One can spend too long trying, pointlessly, trying to decode such things, but if Gira is any way concerned that Swans won’t somehow leave an enduring impression after all this time, the bold grandeur of this LP should ensure that he needn’t worry again.
We throw away adjectives in this reviewing game with careless abandon, but Leaving Meaning is unquestionably stunning and justifies the following gushing praise, and more. It is redemptive; searching; uncertain yet confident; ruminates on mortality yet is unquestionably alive; both humbled and humbling; vast yet sparse; personal yet universal; occluded throughout yet as clear as crystal; quiet yet impossibly, irrepressibly, almost violently loud. It is everything that Swans have ever proposed to be and everything Gira has ever striven toward; faithful yet original. And so on.
Perhaps the only predictable thing about Swans is Gira’s insistence on changing the band’s line-up whenever he feels like it. Leaving Meaning is the first record he’s made after dissolving the group that was Swans from 2010 to 2017 – a comparative period of stability for the band. The new line up features old friends from former iterations of Swans, as well as members of Angels Of Light, the group Gira formed when he put Swans on ice between 1999 and 2010. Gira suggests that Swans will now just consist of a “revolving cast of musicians, selected for both their musical and personal character, chosen according to what I intuit best suits the atmosphere in which I’d like to see the songs I’ve written presented.” The cast this time includes Nick Cave’s keyboard player Larry Mullins, Mick Harvey bassist Yoyo Röhm, Mute labelmate Ben Frost on synths and guitars, Swans / Angels Of Light confidante and guitarist Kristof Hahn, all three members of New Zealand’s The Necks, both members of A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Baby Dee, Anna and Maria von Hausswolff and a supporting cast that would frankly make this sentence even more obscenely long than it already is. (An accompany press photo suggests a team of 32 contributors, with Mute founder Daniel Miller occupying the lower left corner.)
The musicians and vocalists assembled for Leaving Meaning are predominantly European, with many of them living in Berlin. Consequently it’s hard not to liken this record to those pivotal albums that emerged in the early 1980s as Nick Cave and a bunch of other Aussie waifs and strays found themselves in the Kreuzberg district, fusing together punk, noise and musicianship in a way that was entirely visionary.
This is a long album, filled with several songs that effortlessly break the ten-minute mark without ever losing interest. Some of these songs are genuinely, forcibly arresting – the rest are simply brilliant. ‘The Hanging Man’ issues forth on a low-slung, unflinching groove laced with menace and vivid, uncomfortable imagery, while ‘Amnesia’ carries a strange tranquility delivered with an uncompromising, unfiltered verbal panache reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed at their most visceral. The title track is tranquil yet disturbing, reflecting on slipping away, its sparse, languid tonalities and gauzy fuzz akin to listening to The Doors’ ‘This Is The End’ while under the influence of heavy antidepressants. ‘The Nub’ – led by and written specifically for Baby Dee – is bewitching, theatrical and ominous as fuck, the line ‘I’m leaving by distortion’ presaging a coda of intense, heavy drone and rattling guitar and violin dissonance that the moody, haunting serenity of the the first eight or so minutes could never have anticipated.
The evocative ‘Sunfucker’ is a sort of ravaged punk blues centrepiece, like ‘Louie Louie’ recast as a pentagram for summoning all the devils of this world (and others) to cause utter, irreversible havoc. Honed yet frazzled, Gira’s voice here contains a control and even-handed resoluteness, even when the words seem turn to gibberish in his mouth.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence