Angels of Light We Are Him

[Young God; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: gothic folk
Others: Akron/Family, Swans, The Body Lovers

Despite Michael Gira's tendency to pen lyrics that veer toward abstraction, it's obvious they're rooted in personal observation. Gira has the uncanny ability to take the deepest, rawest experiences and dramatize them without cushions of cheap poetics or lazy signifiers. Obscuring the line between individualism and universality (assuming either actually "exist"), his lyrical approach occasionally reaches the point of fantasy, stories that read less like a personal diary and more like fables with ambiguous morals. Sometimes, though, you're simply left with sublime imagery, and no matter how hard you try to figure out Gira's "true" place within the lyrics, it becomes clear that the recurring themes -- violence, darkness, transcendence, redemption, etc. -- are far more important than individual sentiments. But as interesting as it is to try and rationalize Gira's lyrics, a task I feel beyond the scope of a review and perhaps immaterial to the larger scheme, Angels of Light have so many arresting qualities that it's just as easy to surrender to the music as to be intellectually engaged with it.

Always beginning the process with an acoustic guitar and lyrics, Gira's methodology is to then layer the tracks with musical flourishings, guiding musicians while being mindful of the subject matter. Yet despite dressing them in lush theatrics and complex musicianship, a feeling of isolation persists. With nearly every moment characterized, defined, and articulated in relation to the lyrics and guitar, the added sounds become transparent. Despite the many aesthetic benefits of such an approach, the songs are occasionally suffocated by the ornamentation, as if the music's breathing room is stifled by the songwriting template. I imagine these tracks -- or any Angels of Light tracks -- would be just as, if not more, convincing in their original, acoustic guitar-and-voice incarnations (like the breathtaking solo versions of tracks from Sings ‘Other People’ heard on the limited I Am Singing to You From My Room LP), as the music that's supposed to support the lyrics sometimes serves to distract from them.

Despite my aesthetic bias, however, the musical accompaniment on We Are Him is brilliantly executed. Bringing drums back in a compelling way -- Sings Other People featured almost no percussion -- Gira enlists Akron/Family and multiple guest musicians to craft something more visceral this time. The emphasis is still on the lyrics and overall texture, but We Are Him hits with more precision. Tracks like "Black River Song" and "Promise of Water" are among the most striking Gira has ever written (Swans included), while "Not Here/Not Now" and "The Man We Left Behind" showcase the intricacy of which the Angels of Light have already proven so capable. What holds it all together, of course, is Gira's singular vocals. With a timbre that sounds like no other, we should be thankful that Angels of Light are inimitable. Any missed notes or awkward intonations, most notably on "My Brother's Man," are overshadowed by Gira's unrestrained confidence, his lyrical urgency, his unique inflections.

Admitting never knowing when to "stop" adding sounds to his songs, Gira's current interest with Angels of Light is to craft "good songs" first and then build and build on them. It's a solid approach that has produced amazing outcomes. Still, I can't help but wonder what kind of soundworld Gira would enter if he incorporated, say, the sonic manipulations heard on the captivating The Body Lovers/Body Haters, or perhaps if aleatory elements were given a chance -- anything fresh, really. Gira is an artist who's relevant because he's always searching for and finding new approaches, and now that he's clearly refined his songwriting abilities to the point of recycling musical ideas, perhaps his interest in staking out new territory would be especially beneficial for Angels of Light. That said, We Are Him is not faulted for these reasons. Despite not being my personal favorite, the album may in fact be Gira's most poignant statement to date, one that succinctly encapsulates Angels of Lights' every driving thrust since New Mother. And for someone who doesn't even know what chords he's playing, I'd say the musical achievements of Angels of Light are as equally telling as Gira's seminal influence on underground music.

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