Across all mediums, effective art shares the ability to encapsulate and challenge our perceptions of what it means to be alive. Music is no exception: It is a universal language, and a constantly evolving reflection of the human condition. Plenty of artists create music that we can relate to, but few tackle the task of communicating ideas with the jaw-clenching rigor of Michael Gira and his musical project, Swans. Since 1982, Swans has ambitiously paved a winding route, cutting right through the center of music itself. Swans has developed 15 studio albums, especially since its reunion in 2010, but the mission and means of achievement have remained singular. On “leaving meaning.” (2019), Swans continues to use music nimbly as a tool of delight and horror in equal measure. This album is by turns euphoric and frustrating, but rarely ever boring.
If “leaving meaning.” feels like a sprawling epic of a recording project, that’s because it is. It is a double album, with several songs exceeding the ten-minute mark and a runtime of about 90 minutes (modest by Swans standards). The wildly unpredictable tracklist of “leaving meaning.” creates a listening experience that lives and breathes, and Gira has no problem reaching into your headphones to rattle you out of complacency. Following up the atmospheric and beautiful “Annaline” with the hypnotizing guitar riffs and bone-rattling drum arrangement on “The Hanging Man” seems to make little sense but simultaneously succeeds in keeping the listener in the swirling vortex of Swans’ music. Gira’s display of genius on this album is undoubtable, finding the perfect balance between beauty and malice.
A diverse sonic palette is brought to life by various guest contributions from new and old faces. Neoclassical darkwave composer Anna von Hausswolff and her sister Maria von Hausswolff provide chilling, atmospheric background vocals on tracks such as “It’s Coming It’s Real.” Singer-songwriter Baby Dee contributes haunting choral vocals and Australian experimental jazz group The Necks lays down an instrumental to help create the chilling cut “The Nub.” In terms of returning artists, previous Swans members such as Thor Harris and Christopher Pravdica give instrumental help throughout the album, and Gira’s wife Jennifer sings on “Sunfucker.” The listener gets the sense that Gira chose these musicians to execute a vision he knew to be beyond personal reach, and it is an experiment that pays off in spades. Of course, relentless experimentation is what has defined Swans since their creation decades ago.
Both musically and thematically, “leaving meaning.“ is concerned with the idea of letting go. More specifically, lyrics like “A word is a thought / And a thought is a box” from “Annaline” refer to the futility of dwelling on our own thoughts — time better spent living in the moment. The album delivers to listeners an intimidatingly broad set of ideas, executed through a wide range of instrumental approaches. We see lush and low-key guitars on songs like “Amnesia,” which only amplify Gira’s visceral lyrics like “Our hands are two broken claws / We scrape at the ground for hours.” Sinister string arrangements are riddled throughout the record and highlighted on songs like “What is This?” Even instruments like sleigh bells and hammered dulcimer creep their way into tracks at perfect moments to increase the sense of tension or unease that won’t let up. This common thread proves critical to achieving the deep emotional weight that “leaving meaning.“ pursues.
It is decidedly difficult to generate criticism for a band that feels completely severed from popular music standards. It’s also worth noting that the long length of some tracks on “leaving meaning.” will make the record appear inaccessible to large audiences. Gira allows his songs to occupy space and instrumentally bloom to often hypnotic effect, but this approach will not resonate with everybody. In order to fully appreciate its creative vision, Swans asks for your patience. You must test your own mental endurance to listen to the entire album, but the work almost always pays off. While not quite as gratifying as the band’s recent trilogy of albums — “The Seer” (2012), “To Be Kind” (2014) and “The Glowing Man” (2016) — “leaving meaning.” highlights Swans’ incredible attention to detail and ability to create a musical ambience like no other. If you are open to joining Swans on a climb through beauty and brutality, you’ll find “leaving meaning.” to be an extraordinarily rewarding journey.