A Review of Swans’ To Be Kind - By Volume

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A Review of Swans’ To Be Kind

Which We Totally Haven’t Heard Author: and on April 12, 2014
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The first thing you’ll notice when looking at the tracklist for Swans’ To Be Kind is that it is long. Like, super-long. The shortest track clocks in at five minutes while the longest goes on for an exhaustive thirty-four. This alone illustrates how To Be Kind is a more than worthy follow-up to The Seer, which astute readers will remember many critics hailed as the longest album of 2012. But length alone is nothing without technique and character, and it is on these shoulders that To Be Kind truly stands. It is a gargantuan album, presumably filled with spooky riffs, punishing drones, and devilish vocals — the same sort of thing Swans have thrived at throughout their career. Still, To Be Kind is no carbon copy of its predecessor, nor is it note for note identical to any previous Swans album. It is a different record than any Swans have ever released, a record that someone will definitely call a magnum opus and the world will celebrate as the best Swans release of 2014.

Okay, so we haven’t heard To Be Kind. Here’s a review of it anyway.

To Be Kind is likely a monolithic record, one that attempts to do the impossible and one-up a world-beating record with more of the same. Produced by Gira and studio maverick John Congleton (who made this year’s St. Vincent sound so danceable, disturbing, and currently out), the record will almost definitely be regarded as an immaculate work. Indeed, if there’s one definite difference between The Seer and To Be Kind – both works dense with versatile drone soundscaping, extended post-punk jams and sinister aphorisms – it’s the sense in which only the former is available on vinyl right now.

As it currently stands, the only way one can hear To Be Kind is at an awful 96 kbps, which means one might as well not listen to it at all. Upon deciding not to listen to To Be Kind, one is blown away by how epic it will be when it eventually streams on NPR. There’s no doubt that the transition from the four-suite behemoth “Bring The Sun / Toussant L’Overture” into the record’s most clarified moment, “Some Things We Do”, will be pretty much ruined by the sound of an NPR service announcement from a guy in a stoic yet uplifting voice. It’s evident, in the cacophonic noise tunnel Gira crafts with his guitar on the outro of “Toussant L’Overture”, that To Be Kind doesn’t give a damn where support for NPR comes from. This juxtaposition, from the sound of resigned hopelessness to the bright attempt at radio crowdsourcing, is a triumph. Capitalism is both something Gira kills with his music and brings about in promoting it. Unless it streams on like Pitchfork Advance, and then we’ve got a problem.

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And indeed, capitalism is certainly a potential theme of To Be Kind. Going with the inferences supplied by its album cover, To Be Kind is thematically centered around a) beige as an artistic representation of the banality of kindness, and b) horrifying Gerber babies. While the latter interpretation sounds like a stretch, how else should one read the twelve minutes of squealing clarinets and shrieking guitars that probably make up “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)” if not as an aural manifestation of a child’s disgusted reaction to the slime Gerber passes off as the healthy choice for baby food? When Michael Gira likely whisper-sings a menacing play on Gerber’s slogan towards the end of the track — “Shouldn’t your baby be a Murder Baby?” — the indictment of big-business hypocrisy is made painfully explicit. By employing juxtaposition of hellish instrumentals with well-known marketing tactics, Swans might provide searing postmodern commentary on the inhumanity of corporations. People who did not learn “to be kind”, if you will.

It isn’t all political on To Be Kind, though. This is a record about kindness on the micro-level as well as the macro, perhaps. Gira’s lyrics have potentially never sounded as personal as they do here. The album is littered with nuggets from his subconscious, cooked up in that inviting hat of his and relayed with vital intensity. On “A Little God on My Hands”, he reveals the toll existential malaise has taken on him with the couplet: “The hatreds of the universe / No man can truly know / But I bear them all away / Under this large chapeau.” After so much opaque inscrutability from Gira, to hear him open himself to listeners with a chilling admission of his emotional turmoil and also a knowing wink to his much-beloved headwear is not only refreshing, it is hypothetical. And this isn’t the album’s only possible striking moment; on “Oxygen”, Gira could very well expand on the breathing from “Mother of the World” by spending all eight minutes of the track breathing heavily in your ear, turning “Oxygen” into something disturbing, yet hot, like a call from a creepy pervert you actually enjoy. It’s an oddly wonderful thing to think about.

See, with To Be Kind, you could not only be getting a record of epic length and menace, but also one of tremendous heart. This is a band whose bread-and-butter was intense, abusive catharsis. On To Be Kind the catharsis is no less intense, and might not even be different. For example, when Michael Gira screams “KIIIINDNESS” over a hypnotic, apocalyptic jazz groove on the eponymous track, the imagined moment resonates on a visceral level. Similarly, on “Kirsten Supine”, when hopefully he repeats “Kirsten Supine, your hat should be mine” ad nauseum until the words become meaningless — mere sounds woven into the fabric of the rhythmic blanket that envelops the track — it speaks to the queerness of language, the unknowable something that exists beyond what our words can define. To Be Kind could very well be steeped in that sort of honesty, the envy Gira has kept bottled within him for a lifetime. “Words can’t define, a hat this fine…” And so on.

Not all To Be Kind is as enjoyable as the songs mentioned above ideally are. The thirty-four minute run-time of “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” guarantees it will never be played outside the context of the record, and even then, the long, destructive avant-garde drone section that has to be in the middle somewhere is an invitation to grab a bottle of water or take a nap or something. But these are minor quibbles when taking in something so conceivably wonderful. In To Be Kind, Swans have not only silenced critics who said they’d never release anything after The Seer, they’ve done so with aplomb. No one can argue that To Be Kind isn’t an addition to the Swans canon. Some might say that’s not enough, but are we so jaded by the state of music in 2014 that we can no longer laud things we haven’t heard? We say nay. Swans’ To Be Kind is probably a triumph, the type of album one thinks about and understands is intrinsically better than any of its gutless, non-hypothetical peers. We can’t wait to hear it.

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