Gira turns inward and finds just as much depth within the contours of his band’s new sound as he did its most overwhelming energy.
In 1982, Michael Gira named his new band after swans, noting that the creatures were beautiful, but deadly. Over the course of the group’s four-decade history of regular lineup changes and stylistic reinventions, however, the bird that the band most closely resembles is the phoenix. After rising from the ashes of their entropic burnout in the mid-1990s, Michael Gira’s pet project (sporting an all-new, mostly stable lineup), transformed from a cult outfit for the most daring of noise aficionados into the unlikeliest heroes of 21st-century rock, mainstays of music festivals and subject to a level of mainstream notice and celebration they never enjoyed in their heyday. When Gira announced the dissolution of his reunion lineup following the release of 2016’s The Glowing Man, he did so with a promise to reconvene sooner than the band’s previous period of dormancy. Merely two years after wrapping the Glowing Man tour, Gira returns with a new lineup for leaving meaning, an album as clearly tethered to the preceding run of LPs as it is different from them.
Swans’ 2010s output drew heavily from the band’s final LP prior to their first breakup, the expansive and pioneering post-rock of Soundtracks for the Blind. The band’s latest, composed with the assistance of as dizzying array of guests, naturally lacks the cohesion of the rebooted Swans’ tetralogy. At times, the album sounds like a grab bag of the band’s history, with a particular focus on their turn toward strange, bleak folk in the early ‘90s. The opening drone of “Hums” gives way to “Annaline,” a surprisingly brittle track given Swans’ recent history of expansive, explosive post-rock. Indebted to the spare instrumentation and cold confessional of Gira’s Angels of Light project, the song is, of all things, tender. It describes the feeling of falling perilously in love; at last enjoined with someone Gira moans “Well, I’m somewhere in you/ And I’ll never get out.” The hypnotic spiritualism of New Swans is morphed into a delicate assemblage of references to Buddha and St. John, religious touchstones employed to capture the feeling of a more earthbound bliss. Stretching all the way back to his earliest, most brutally violent lyrics, Gira has employed catharsis through surrender, but here he celebrates submission to powerlessness as proof of love, not of lack of free will.
This mingling of the band’s darkest impulses with the more optimistic swells of longing and love is even more explicitly pronounced in “Cathedrals of Heaven,” which layers gentle chimes of guitar and faint chants underneath Gira’s molasses-thick phrasing of lines like “While stealing my dreams, while clawing my skies/ Please open my chest, please curl in my nest.” The spaciousness of the track leaves nowhere for such naked expressions of dependence to hide, and it’s remarkable how Gira updates the most harrowing emotions of Swans’ earliest days while replacing the shock value of references to slavery and rape with the quotidian drama of relationships without losing any of the troubling or evocative properties of his songwriting.
Elsewhere, such emotions give way to moments of daybreak. “What Is This?” has the bright swells and quasi-western vibes common to post-rock, and its shimmering orchestration finds beauty in its concluding chant “Nothing can stop us from becoming nothing now.” On the title track and “The Nub,” Gira swaps out his band to get backing from Australian improvisational group The Necks, and their fluid backing proves a fine fit for Gira’s lyrical methods of repetition and gradual variation. On the title track in particular, the frontman returns to the koan-esque mantras employed as an instrument in the previous post-reunion albums. “Leaving Meaning” and “The Nub” are the closest that this album comes to the epic-length, multi-side showstoppers of the last few albums, but both only make it to the 12-minute mark. Each is also an exercise in restraint, sidewinding around small pockets of tension rather than erupting like “The Seer” or “Bring the Sun.” Gira shifts away from the cascading volume to focus on the minute dynamics that were always present in those earlier epics, revealing how carefully he and his collaborators build their compositions.
There are, however, moments of the nervy, keyed-up Swans that became so celebrated this decade. “The Hanging Man,” first tried out in prototype form in jams on the Glowing Man tour, may never crest in the outright cataclysm that dotted To Be Kind, but its staggering bassline, echoing percussion and slinking, bleary guitars have all the tension of tracks on that album. “Sunfucker” is pure Swans, an ecstatic religious hymn to a god of annihilation that crests on shrieks of glissandi before dumping out into the lolling repetitions that the band perfected in its last iteration before climaxing in pure nihilistic delight. Closer “My Phantom Limb” even harks back to the band’s roots, a clanging din of out-of-sync vocal harmonies over a disemboweled riff that could have comfortably fit on Cop.
It must be said that leaving meaning. lacks the immediate impact of Swans’ last three albums, indeed of much of their discography. Its delicate compositions and lack of cathartic release make it an outlier in the band’s work, a record more muted than anything else in the band’s oeuvre save perhaps 1989’s The Burning World, the much-maligned album to which this new release bears unexpected resemblance in places. It is a shockingly delicate album, to the extent that it takes multiple listens to suss out just how belligerent and tense it can actually be. Having already explored the furthest reaches of eardrum-torturing noise, Gira turns inward and finds just as much depth within the contours of his band’s new sound as he did its most overwhelming energy.