Swans – Leaving Meaning
In the early ’80s, Swans emerged from the ashes of New York City’s bleak “no wave” scene, and for a time, they became notorious for a live show with a sonic assault so unrelentingly loud, the cops would shut things down. But frontman Michael Gira has too much talent to remain boxed into such restrictive parameters – in the ensuing years, he has shown remarkably diverse songwriting skills, to the point where his songs can sometimes be downright tender and lovely.
On Leaving Meaning, Swans’ 15th studio album, Gira has struck the right balance between the brutal and the beautiful. The skewed rhythmic loop on “The Hanging Man” creates an unsettling soundscape that spirals into anxiety-riddled atonal guitars and a palpable sense of dread by the time it reaches its climax at the 10:48 mark. At the start of the song, Gira’s sonorous baritone is almost flatly emotionless, but soon he begins punctuating the choruses with startling shouts, howls, and other unusual and uninhibited mannerisms, to the point where he sounds possessed. The title track is similarly powerful and trance-inducing, even though it offers an almost drowsy, chiming backdrop for Gira’s aloof vocal delivery as he sings the kind of existentialist, intellectual lyrics that have become his trademark; the effect is somehow just as intense as it is on the band’s more forceful tracks.
As the only constant member over the band’s long history, it’s clear that Gira is firmly in control here, though he did have help from several collaborators, including guitarist Kristof Hahn (Les Hommes Sauvages), drummer/keyboardist Larry Mullins (Iggy Pop; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and bassist Yoyo Röhm. But there’s no mistaking this for anyone’s project but Gira’s – he is the undisputed ringmaster. The one song he doesn’t sing, the cabaret-noir ballad “The Nub,” suffers from the absence of his dynamic voice, even though guest vocalist Baby Dee puts in an expressive performance (and, Gira says, he wrote the track for her to sing), but it clear that Swans songs are best when Gira delivers them himself. After nearly 40 years, Gira still has proven charisma and interesting things to say, making Leaving Meaning one of his band’s most captivating albums.