SWANS: to be kind
BY sarah c. martin - 16 april 2014
On May 12 Swans will release their thirteenth studio album, To Be Kind, the follow-up to 2012's masterful The Seer, via Young God / Mute. St Vincent's Annie Clark provides backing vocals on the album and there will also be appearances from Cold Sparks, Little Annie and Bill Rieflin.
As of today, the band has shared two tracks off To Be Kind. The first, “A Little God in My Hands”, exhibits the post-industrial strut now familiar to fans of the band - but it’s also strangely funky in a crooked-man-limping kind of way. The guitar’s role is gentle and ominous throughout, a sort of dreadful and perplexing orchestra in itself. The song’s verses give way to bursts of discordant horn and the crushing climaxes we have come to expect from Swans.
That said, the band has done well to keep things fresh. Frontman Michael Gira has stated that although even longer than The Seer, To Be Kind will be “more vocal-oriented” than its predecessor. In this track, his vocal is delivered with a snarly, nasal drawl that conjures up images Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, a man haunted and unhinged.
The second release, “Oxygen”, has the same off-kilter, vaguely jazzy feel as “A Little God In My Hands”, but the eight-minute roar also has plenty of jarring primal force. Gira is a shouting conductor with a mouth full of blood and broken teeth. He is menacing and maniacal as he steers the track’s predatory groove into a deranged and suffocating frenzy. It's dangerous and completely enthralling.
The To Be Kind album art will include several panels all featuring different baby images (pictured right). Gira has shared a detailed account of how he first came across these paintings by conceptual artist Bob Biggs:
"I first met Bob Biggs in Los Angeles in 1976 / 77, through friends in the so-called punk scene there. He was a conceptual artist, but like everyone else with a brain, he was enthralled with the sudden and concussive events endemic to the rise of the beautifully scabrous punk explosion at the time. He was “outside” of it (as was I, in retrospect), but also in it, and had a sardonic view of it simultaneously.
I distinctly remember him arriving at the infamous (genesis site of LA Punk) Masque Club, with a Semi Truck bearing a a fully grown, mucous-dripping cow, and leading it down a ramp into the club, where it ambled about, shat, and was then led out. I’m not certain what this was supposed to actually mean, but it was a delightful event, nevertheless.
Later, I was at the house of a friend (and a friend of Bob’s), and I noticed an unfathomable image on the wall. It was a pastel of one of the baby images we are now using as the art for the new Swans album. An uncanny visual cipher, and it stuck with me, all these years.
I look at Bob’s baby images as something like the Mona Lisa—utterly inscrutable, but ACHING to reach up to the surface. Or like one of Jasper Johns’ flag paintings—I just can’t figure them out, but they keep calling me back.
I recall asking Bob in 1981 or so if I could use one of those baby images for a record, and he said, definitively, NO. But those images have remained in the back of my head since then, always nagging. It seems they’re always calling me, calling, calling... I’m delighted that these images, finally with Bob’s consent, can now act as innocent, but implacable sentinels for the music of Swans, after all these years. .. God Bless Bob Biggs..."