When Swans surfaced in 1982, the grim-visaged New York band set a new standard for rock that made you feel as if you were being pummeled by thugs while swirling down a sewage-filled vortex. (Hey, when a savvy band sees a void in the musical landscape, it damn well knows to fill it.)
Throughout much of the '80s, while many were seeking escapism in coked-out disco, poodle-haired stadium rock, and featherweight synth pop, Swans leader Michael Gira was rubbing noses into the abject filth of his despairing worldview—a catalog of songs that made Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett seem like rank Pollyannas. In an agonized, stentorian tone of voice, Gira vomited forth blunt, caustic accusations and observations that made your internal organs shrivel and your reproductive fluids evaporate. Over that ordeal, his musical cohorts forged stark, brutal sludge rock that sounded like both catharsis and catastrophe.
Gira—who, as far as I know, has never been seen or photographed in public while smiling—kept everyone in the group on such a tight leash, the tension residing in the musicians' chords and beats became nearly unbearable. Swans were like a no-wave band ensnared in mutually assured destruction mode, with Gira as steely-eyed dictator delineating harrowing psychosexual and grotesque interpersonal scenarios instead of outlining military maneuvers.
Of course, this sort of extreme sonic and lyrical sadism could not last. Gira eventually relented and lightened Swans' musical tone and lyrical tenor—but just a bit; he hasn't exactly been penning homilies and motivational speeches since 1989's "major-label sellout" The Burning World. Gira's voice still arcs downward, but it does so now with much less angst and intensity. Putting Swans on hiatus while he trudged ahead with his less provocative, less tormented Angels of Light ensemble probably allowed Gira to maintain what passes for sanity and serenity in his tumultuous mind.
Similarly, Swans' first album of new material in 13 years, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, doesn't wallow in the blasted netherworlds of earlier Swans incarnations. But it still stops to smell the morose, assuring the Swans faithful more songs to keep them suitably bummed for months, if not years.
Speaking of bummed, it seems like a perversely healthy idea to survey the Gira-scopic words most likely to make your own miserable life seem not so damned hopeless. While this study is by no means exhaustive, it does offer a revealing glimpse into Gira's scary psyche. May these verbal gut punches provide succor.
"Stay Here": "Be strong/Be hard/Resist temptation/Stick your hand in your eye/Close your fist/Resist/Flex your muscles/Walk on this line/Look straight ahead/Be hard/Come back for more." Gira here expresses a Sisyphean situation of elemental stoicism. The implication is that you must be vigilant at all times against temptations. The protagonist is condemned to an eternal recurrence of physical challenge, with no possibility for joy. Harsh!
"Failure": "I'll drown here trying/To get up for some air/But each time I think I breathe/I'm laid on with a double share/Of the punishing burden of failure/I don't deserve to be down here/But I'll never leave/And I've learned one thing/You can't escape the beast/In the null and void pit of failure... Some people live in hell/Many bastards succeed/But I, I've learned nothing/I can't even elegantly bleed/Out the poison blood of failure." Gira intones these words with deadpan resignation, like a Leonard Cohen devoid of all faith, over a spare, spindly guitar and another that drones with great solemnity. You feel as if you're slowly sinking in quicksand while Gira wanly waves good-bye. You're better off in the muck, unconscious, he implies. And all your suffering didn't even provide any enlightenment. Harsh!
"Power for Power": "Use sex for control/Use power for power/Use money for cruelty/Use hate for freedom/Take control and keep it/Don't let go/He was your friend/She was your friend/They were wrong/Turn against them/Sex, power, money, hate/Take control and keep it/Don't let go/Power for power/Power for power's sake." Gira paints an Orwellian/Darwinian hellscape that surely would resonate with many politicians around the world, both down through history and into the future, till kingdom combust. The music is like a series of unvarying gavel blows combined with the whining gears of industry eating at your soul. Harsh!
"I Crawled": "You're my father/I obey you/I want you to be my father/You know what I am/I want you to kill me/I'm weak/Take what's mine/Make me feel good/Make me feel soft/Come into my room/Put your hands on my throat/Now choke me/We'll die/Make me nothing/Be my father/Think for me/Make it right/Think for me/Make it right/Put your hands on my throat/Choke me/We'll ride." Somebody has daddy issues! Gira makes Franz Kafka look like a well-adjusted papa's boy here, as he outlines a relationship all out of whack with the tenets of sensible parenting. Musically, this is one of Swans' most forbidding tunes, a sucking chest wound of a rhythm created by tarry, slurred guitars and beats like sadistic martial-arts masters. Harsh!
"Half Life": "Permission is bloodless/Ambition is senseless/Don't make a wrong move/Work with a purpose/You win or you lose/Imitate a slave/Don't make a wrong move/Learn from experience/Don't be useless/Waste is obscene." Companies worldwide should post these words on workplace walls—if they want to completely demoralize their ranks. Sonically, this is perhaps the most depressing rock track ever; it evokes a mastodon repeatedly groaning and wailing in agony, while a T. rex clubs it with a redwood. Harsh!
"A Screw (Holy Money)": "Keep your head on the ground, push your ass up/Move around, shake it, cry, cry, cry, cry/Open your mouth, here's your money/Open your mouth, this feels good/Here is your money, this is love/Open your mouth, here is your money." Swans' blatant bid to get played in strip joints is one of their most danceable tracks (imagine two sabers the size of the Space Needle grinding against each other) while the drummer slams out the least festive tribal beat ever. Gira moans the words, detailing a scenario where the subject acts out the ultimate capitalist endgame. Harsh!
"Time Is Money (Bastard)": "Your body is private/Your mind is sacred/You should be violated/You should be raped/I need you/I want them to do this to you... Someone less privileged than you should use you/Someone weaker than you should rape you/You should be violated/You should be raped/Don't fight back/I need you/Don't fight back/I want them to do this to you." Wow—maybe it wasn't such a good idea to read all of Dennis Cooper's books in one month... What we have here is Swans' idea of a dance-club smash—all pneumatic, rivet-gun beats and bulbous bass thrusts—while Gira alternately growls and leers the above scenes of illegal degradation. But it seems like somebody in Gira's social circle needs to learn a lesson, no matter how painful the repercussions. Harsh!
"Raping a Slave": "Why be ashamed of hatred/There's nothing wrong with burning/I work hard for everything I own/Everything I own chokes me when I sleep/Why be ashamed of burning/Why be ashamed of burning/You do what you want/Then you cut out your heart/You do what you want/You burn out your heart/You burn out my heart/Then you eat my heart/You cut out your heart/Then you eat your heart/You burn it/Then eat it." Does anyone else think of Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn while reading these words? Ultimately, this appears to be a song of catharsis, albeit a very painful catharsis. Eating a burned heart, especially one's own, would probably cause heartburn. The music sounds like something you'd hear at an infernal labor camp—with no smoke breaks. Harsh!