Many critics have issued well-meaning but saccharine prescriptions against the cultural pandemic uncritically known as irony over the past decade, as if the acidity and diffidence witnessed in contemporary culture are symptoms of the consumption of unwholesome art rather than a response to the ever-deepening alienation into which modernity has thrust us. Although this nostalgia for lost sincerity contains a note of genuine belief in the power of art to heal our existential woes, it forgets the crucial vector of the virus. But at least one corrective to alienation has always existed, and it rarely takes the form of a critical pose or heartfelt sentimentality. Since the beginning of consciousness, the most primal of all methods for generating intimacy has always been the achievement of ecstasy. The induction of this state takes many forms, but, as Swans has seized on, music is one of its most ideal vehicles. To Be Kind launches them further along their trajectory toward this exalted condition, and at its peaks, it witnesses a dawning of an even-more-primary mode of consciousness: love.
For To Be Kind, Michael Gira has stripped down his lyrics to elements: “We fuck, we come, we love, we work.” These linguistic formulas leave no room to disagree. The combined conceptual weight of the words on this album is monumental. But To Be Kind doesn’t offer a metaphysical system as much as a series of imperatives: “No pain, no now, no time, no here/ No knife, no mind no hand no fear/ Love! Now! Breathe, now! Here, now!” Here and now repeat over and over, riding the incessant waves of percussion and guitar to a frenzied summit. “Screen Shot” commands attention with an almost martial severity, leading to an early ecstatic peak that demands the same of the listener as most mystical programs: here, now, here, now. Space and time come to a halt, in love and in breath. The vitality of life and the energy of love intertwine in the ceaseless present. When “Screen Shot” ends, the peaceful transition to “Just a Little Boy” is already a welcomed rest; but its dedication to Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, another master of musical ecstasy, should be a clue not to get too comfortable. After its languid welcome of sleep, Gira’s voice rises, demanding love, disregarding the peals of laughter that surround it.
Later, Gira repeatedly commands us (and all existence) to “bring the sun.” With each dictum, the seemingly ceaseless repetition of the same words, same chords, same rhythm intensifies, with each member and guest wringing increasingly more emotional force out of each movement, as if the collective power of their ritual could compel the sun to rise. This twofold process — extreme simplification of the musical gestures coupled with an accelerating, crescendoing, climactic vigor — simulates both erotic action and mystical union. “Bring the Sun” is a musical soul-fucking. As such, it offers only as much as you give to it. Listeners who favor detachment will find little use in “Bring the Sun” as background music, as its escalating fury becomes evident only by following each passing hill and valley in its climb to the summit. Exhausting as it may be, the only viable listening method is total immersion. The payoff is worth the effort.
“Bring the Sun’s” apex gives way to its second half, “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” If 2012’s The Seer is Swans’ apocalypse in all its revelatory lunacy and disintegration, To Be Kind is their messianic advent, bursting with radiance, love, and freedom. Hallelujahs and amens appear all over it. Even where total planetary collapse threatens on “Kirsten Supine” (a reference to Kirsten Dunst lying nude before impending doom in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia), a kind of angelic calm within the storm prevails (in part due to St. Vincent’s crystalline backing vocals). Within that calm is acceptance, but conquering the fear of death is only the beginning of the way to freedom. To Be Kind may include Swans’ only political endorsement: Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution, emancipator of an entire nation of slaves. “Toussaint L’Ouverture” arrives on horseback (a horse even appears on the track), as the Book of Revelation claims the messiah will, delivering the first decisive blow to the institution of slavery. Gira yawps the motto of the revolution (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!”) and invokes the blood of god. It’s as if the eroticism of “Bring the Sun” has conceived the vehicle of our redemption.
This divine purpose has not cleansed Swans of their profanity and violence. Love is dirty. It’s Gira’s immersion in human reality that enables this purpose to clarify: “Eye full of sun, hand full of mud/ Oh universe: You stink of love!” he intones on “A Little God in My Hands.” The achievement of To Be Kind is not a transcendental crossing over to a holy otherness in the sky, but the realization that each mote of filth is part and parcel of the universal mind. Liberation is recognizing it, having no fear of it — loving it. We drink from the jackal-headed death god’s water bowl as long as it will tolerate us. On “Oxygen,” death and breath synthesize into a single process, each inhalation daring mortality to drop its guillotine. Death is just another part of the process. For those seeking a statement of purpose in light of all this existential jubilation, “Nathalie Neal” decrees an edict: “Kill the cruel, heal the blind/ Cut your name onto the sky.”
A final moment of tenderness appears before the triumphant finale of “To Be Kind,” reminding us (again, repeatedly) to pay attention to the dust we are made of: “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes.” Here is Gira at his most vulnerable. Some may find it a turn-off, but isn’t openness the only possible precursor to ecstasy? That’s how music works, that’s how sex works, and that’s how love works. Beyond that they’re a series of repetitive motions, pain/pleasure responses, surges and ebbs. To Be Kind achieves an intimacy no Swans album has ever approached, but it also ranks among their most turbulent works to date. Over its two-hour course, if you can bear it, it assaults layer upon layer of the stoic fortress of alienation, alternating its pounding attacks with gentle reprieve. It’s an effective tactic, but let’s not forget what’s at stake. Concealed in the innermost chambers behind these battlements is perhaps our last human hope: love, awaiting its liberation from our protection.