The first Swans album in 13 years opens with church bells. They’re the kind of bells you don’t hear too much in suburban America anymore — the kind that don’t ring, but toll. Maybe the bells are gone because all the churches are in strip malls or on giant campuses too far from anywhere to be heard. Or maybe, as Michael Gira seems convinced, they’re gone because if we listened to those bells, and to all the other parts of the past we’ve conveniently forgotten, we wouldn’t like what they remind us of. My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To the Sky, from the title’s evocation of righteous death on down to its suffusion with keening strings and other touches of sonic Americana, is an attempt to come to terms with the dark heart of history, with that ultimate question: if we are born into crime and monstrous darkness, how do we become more than that past?
Those church bells are the kind that tolled over Salem as teenage girls were being burned, and the doleful brass and drum rolls that pepper the album saw young boys into the killing fields of Antietam. This is a record obsessed with children and parents and legacy, in a way that’s unsurprisingly grim. “I love you, young flower/ Now give me what is mine,” guest Devendra Banhart coos with vampiric anticipation, echoed by affectless innocents. “Mother I need you/ I need your claws in my neck,” Gira demands, for maybe there are no innocents in all of this. And maybe there were never even the good intentions we always speak of going astray: “Please never forgive me/ Please spit on my name/ But hold on to my memory, and keep me to blame.” Isn’t it easier, somehow, to imagine our children will remember us in infamy, than memorialize our greatness?
What matters to we venal mortals, anyway, is to never die. “Long may he live, long may he live/ Long may his children drift through the wind/ To think is a sin, to think is a sin/ Long may his world… never begin.” I’m not quite sure I’ve got that right; is it his world or his woes that are never to begin? Is this a blessing or a curse? Gira mocks our lust for immortality and all the ways we have contrived to chase it. “Ride your mechanical beast to heaven,” he commands, sneering at techno-lust, as well as at his most consistent target, religion. Sometimes his curses against heaven and hell are oblique: “Let’s strangle the man and the tower of stairs/ Let’s piss on the sea that’s burning down there.” Sometimes he is more direct, and it’s in those moments that the record borders on self-righteous nihilism. When Gira demands that we “burn up the liar pile” or declares that he is “free of the choking hold that began in Eden Prison,” we glimpse the Holden Caufield callowness of his punk roots.
But Gira is far from young nowadays, and he’s certainly learned that nihilism is a dead end. Despite those few harsh words, this is a record whose sounds, at least, speak to the continued human capacity to appreciate terrible beauty. Unlike the earliest Swans records, this is a collection of actual songs, rather than textures or rhythms, and while there are sweeps of electricity now and again, what dominates are the analog, the acoustic, the old, and the wooden. There’s nothing ‘folky’ here, mind you, despite Banhart’s appearance; this is not the New Weird America, but the Old Horrific America, full of screaming violins and rusty saws and half-tuned pianos and panicking mandolins and moaning trombones. This is what Nick Cave would sound like if he wasn’t a vaudevillian. This is music about real nightmares and monsters, in all their seductive rapine.
Gira adds himself here to those who have seen through to the betrayal and vengeance and lies that found everything great. The vision of twisted Americana he elaborates is, undeniably, already pervasive, infectious as a word-virus. For the most recent instance of unlikely, uncontrolled transmission, just check Fever Ray’s videos, a mess of reborn suburban redskins and haunting swamp things. These are specific images — Faulknerian, McCarthyesque, Southern — but they are also timeless, a confirmation that nations, like people, start dying as soon as they’re born. America began not with Jamestown, in a righteous struggle against the elements from which we were saved by benevolent Indians, but with Roanoke, the “Lost Colony” where Sir Walter Raleigh sent hundreds to death by starvation and hundreds more to disappear, untraceable, into the wilderness of American history. Raleigh also marks the common lineage of insanity between North and South America, as just one of numerous European lords to venture into the jungles of present-day Colombia and Venezuela seeking El Dorado. The soul of this sort of quest has been captured in the films Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog, a murderous, filthy American Madman at heart, whatever his ridiculous accent.
Like those great films, like the later novels of William Burroughs, My Father is a carefully crafted nightmare, with no trace of self-indulgence. It is essentially a misanthropic opera, richly orchestrated, full of choruses, and recorded with beautiful meticulousness. “Reeling the Liars In” has all the space and clarity of a Giant Sand track, and even as Gira fantasizes about cutting the faces off the unjust and burning them in “clear flames of revenge,” he sings with the stately grandeur of a Broadway veteran. It is the deepest, richest bleakness imaginable.
And that, I think, is what Gira can teach us about the escape from nihilism. The man had a youth troubled enough to breed an above-average openness to the pain and injustice of existence, spending nearly 30 years composing a master soundtrack for humankind’s funeral. But think about that: whatever his demons, he hasn’t killed himself in any way fast or slow, violent or merely neglectful, physically, or, as seems to be the fashion, spiritually. I can only hope he has found some peace, but if he has, I’m sure it’s been in the process of creating works like this one — things both beautifully made and, most important, unflinchingly honest. Telling the truth, I like to think, is the best way to learn how to live with ourselves.
And that truth, if it’s a real truth, isn’t actually entirely bleak. The industrial violence of the Swans of 1983 was never the complete picture, and what makes this record so spectacular, so much more real than the hundred-odd post-goth mope-fests that will come out just this year under the influence of Gira’s past, is that he is willing to admit he has hope. There is a constant ambivalence, for one thing, in Gira’s stories — after we hear him go from resentful child to needy parent to liar to avenger, it becomes clear he is all of them at once, that he is both condemning criminals and confessing to crimes. There is also the implicit message of the gorgeous music, no longer, as Swans were once described, “aggressive beyond words.” This is not weaponized sound; it’s music to be lived with.
But we don’t need to work hard to see the soft, weak underbelly of Michael Gira. It’s all right here on the last track, “Little Mouth,” which opens with the simple request, “Please open my heart.” The song, though full of double-meaning and barbs, is a hymn, a plea for succor, for something bigger than the singer. It’s a moment of bravery — it’s nihilism, after all, that’s easy in this day and age. To give up, to sneer, to damn — however useful the spirit of the 1960s was, those have become its tombs. The real bravery is for an album whose title equates religion with suicide to end almost at the other end of the spectrum: “Teach me please, to cease to resist,” Gira asks. “May I find my way to the reason to come home/ May I find my way to the foot of your throne.” He knows he doesn’t have much chance of finding that way, knows even that no such thing exists. He knows that the future is unlikely to be any less rife with human self-destruction than the past, that children will continue to be murdered by their parents in ways large and small. But Gira is unflinching enough to admit he longs for it nonetheless — longs for that better future, longs for a place to call home for eternity. He is honest enough, finally, to hold open the wound of that desire, and to invite us to feel the loss that we are constantly being told to forget.