Tiny Mix Tapes was thrown into something of a behind-the-scenes tizzy last month when it emerged that Beyoncé, that unimpeachable icon of feminine empowerment and liberation, was reportedly making more than a few bucks out of female sweatshop labor in Sri Lanka. Given that we’d joined the rest of the Free World in praising her latest album to the hilt, this news caused something of a stir in our “office,” re-confronting us with the age-old question of whether we can or should divorce ourselves from the political and ethical ramifications of an artist’s life when appreciating their art.
In Beyoncé’s case, this isn’t perhaps a difficult question to answer, if only because Bey had already brought politics and ethics into her work by using a narrative of (female/black) manumission to brand and sell it. That said, when it comes to Michael Gira and the accusation he faced in February of raping fellow musician Larkin Grimm, the case isn’t so clear-cut. This isn’t simply because, unlike Beyoncé, Gira hasn’t made a career on the back of an image that would be bluntly contradicted by his alleged evil, but because this evil is indeed still alleged. We are, therefore, at something of an impasse when it comes to approaching his band’s music through the prism of his private life, since any attempt to form a conception of Swans’ 14th album in terms of his concrete existence is confounded by the uncertainty and equivocation surrounding the moral worth of this existence. What’s more, it’s this uncertainty as much as anything else that reveals how dangerous the task of weighing a musician’s art against their ethics can be, even if our status as moral agents and political animals arguably impels us to uphold ethical standards at the same time as aesthetic ones.
Still, at the risk of sounding far too glib, there is something about post-reformation Swans that removes the need to analyze personalities, identities, and histories when interpreting the band’s increasingly monolithic noise. Ever since Gira and his current lineup of collaborators returned to the music demimonde in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, he’s been on an apparent quest to shed himself of all particularity and subjectivity, to escape his own body-mind and dissolve into a mass of pure energy, potential, spirit, ecstasy — call it what you will. At first, this came with great difficulty for a man who’d spent the 80s and 90s denigrating religion and other systems of power, yet his determination to cede himself to some higher force came with that 2010 album’s closer, “Little Mouth,” in which he prayed, “Oh teach me please, to cease to resist.”
And so, six years and two intervening albums later, Gira has seemingly reached the end of this quest with The Glowing Man, calling it the “final recording from this configuration of Swans.” That it’s the final recording is entirely apt, because from the very opening of “Cloud of Forgetting” and its tremolo-picked guitars, Gira begins incanting such lines as “Reaching out,” “Surrender,” and “I am blind,” preparing himself for an album that appears to finally consummate his desire to melt beyond his own physical boundaries. The song is a 12-minute trickle of ominous piano and guitars that culminates in a torrent of mountainous squall, the kind that in a live setting will no doubt allow Gira to once again “grasp something of the infinite in the sound and experience generated by a force that is definitely greater than all of [Swans] combined.”
It’s this going-beyond-yourself that forms the bedrock and ultimate objective of The Glowing Man, recurring as a motif in the inexorable crescendos of almost every track and in the constant lyrical sense that Gira is invoking something bigger than his mortal frame so that he can lose himself in it. In the 25-minute “Cloud of Unknowing,” he intones such conjurations as “I am calling” and “I am washing,” while within the electronic- and piano-littered ambience of “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black,” he repeats such plaints and threats as “Wash it away,” “Gonna bury my mind,” and “The weight of my body/ Is too much to bear.” At all points, he sounds like someone unhappy in his own skin, so unhappy in fact that it becomes dangerously tempting to interpret his desire to leave this skin behind as not only an admission of world-weariness, frailty and mortality, but also of guilt.
Yet someone need not be guilty in order to have skeletons in their biographical closet they wish to escape. Moreover, there’s the suspicion that what concerns Swans on The Glowing Man is less simple escape from their all-too humanness, and more the possibility of “becoming one” with a benevolent higher power or force. This comes out, for example, in Gira’s recurring figurative use of “The Sun,” which as an image first appeared in “Bring the Sun” from To Be Kind, and which crops up on the album amidst the cries of “Take us!” in “Cloud of Forgetting.” While its usage is predictably allusive and vague, it eventually becomes clear that it functions symbolically as a sign of that very same “power or force,” as a sign of light, of truth, of goodness, of a higher plane of being.
This is mostly because The Glowing Man really does seem to be pursuing such a plane of being in its meditative-cum-cathartic trainwrecks of rock-tinged abandon. However, for Swans and Gira, this plane is accessed not by raising the self in its status or consciousness, but by annihilating it. Of all places, this approach is most manifest during the album’s title track, a 29-minute gargantuan in which floating organs, twitching guitars, and arrhythmic percussion kick off a series of peaks and troughs that take in head-pounding dirges, chanting stampedes, and sudden noise-bursts. Over the course of this crushing half-hour, it becomes almost painfully obvious how Swans use sheer, unrelenting repetitiveness to emphasize Gira’s thematic fixation on the loss of control and of self, as if making it plain that, once they hand their selves over to “the Sun,” they become abjectly incapable of altering the course on which they’re then set. This is further heightened by Gira when he declares toward the song’s rampaging end, “I am a glowing, glowing man/ I am a nothing, nothing man,” confirming that he’s become nothing but an empty vessel for whatever energy, principle, force, or power now moves through him.
It’s once again tempting to speculate here and suggest that such a power is attractive because it promises absolution from personal responsibility. Then again, the occasional Christian reference that crops up in The Glowing Man — including professions like “Joseph is making my body fly” from the title track — would reaffirm that this transcendent dynamic is actually a positive, love-centered one, and not one that would seek another’s harm. As Gira puts it on triumphant closer “Finally, Peace,” it’s “glorious,” infusing with existence the world and its objects, which according to him are “just a symptom of Love.”
It’s from this lyric that we finally learn that Gira has, after all this time, begun subscribing to some kind of metaphysics that identifies Love as the foundation/essence of all existence (whatever that might mean). However, even though such a cuddly-feely affirmation might make us think twice about his personal history, it unfortunately has less effect on our reception of the music that Swans offer on The Glowing Man. For the most part, this music has lost nothing of its punishing weight and austere grandeur since To Be Kind, yet for the current outing, it has become a mite too punishing and austere, having lost something of its creativity, nuance, and personality in the two years since that landmark album.
More specifically, there are eight tracks on The Glowing Man, and while they perform a suitably preternatural job of conveying Gira’s pursuit of self-transcendence and annihilation, the band’s attempt to jettison their respective individualities, particularities, and characteristics via brute force alone comes at the not-too unsurprising cost of robbing these same songs of distinctiveness, variety, and color. Three of them clock in at over 20 minutes, while two others exceed 10, yet rather than filling the massive space they occupy with melodies, riffs, harmonies, or hooks, they often play out more as de-individuated masses of tone and texture. They rise and fall according to the band’s capricious mood, but their occasional lack of articulation, embellishment, definition, and dynamism is such that the album ends up engaging less than The Seer and To Be Kind, even with the relief provided by its three shorter, folkier numbers.
Ultimately, this failure to consistently engage will perhaps be as much a block on its reception, appreciation, and interpretation as any uncertain allegation bearing on its author’s private life. This isn’t at all to equate the “crime” of a somewhat subpar album with an actual crime, but it is to say that, for a record seeking personal elevation via uncontainable energy, The Glowing Man doesn’t always glow often or energetically enough to help its listeners realize that it’s trying to attain such elevation. It does of course have some affecting highlights (the racing conclusion of “Frankie M,” the central movement of the title track, the Jennifer Gira-fronted “When Will I Return?”), but these aren’t frequent enough for an album that wants two hours of your time. It’s therefore something of a good thing that Gira is putting this current incarnation of Swans to rest after six years, because quite irrespective of his virtue as a human being, the band’s music has become a little less virtuous.