Album Review: Swans – The Beggar

[Young God/Mute; 2023]

◒ a postcard:

Hey Michael, it’s been a while. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing well – or as good as possible in the rumbling of the 21st century. Part of me has this vision of our time as the labor of a new man, but I suspect the same is true of those that lived through the first and second great war, only to feel dumbfounded by Woodstock and Manson.

I recently thought a lot of you, as I feel this fractured era of great destruction and anger could be one of your texts: a merciless and uncompromising vision of dread that slowly encapsulates the human race, only to lead to a strange moment of great forming, blinding light that transforms into love and a coming dawn. It’s my spiritual side, I’m sure.

But still, just so you know – I’m still poring over your latest text. Like some drug of the Victorian era, it overtakes my senses, with my mind following closely behind. I also love Pink.

Thank you, Michael. See you soon.

◓ a fairytale:

Wavering atop the hill, the giant glares down upon the valley, breathing heavily, the toll of time gestating what is left of his mad mind, as he observes those below reducing their village to ashes. His fingers graze his chest, finally finding the protruding metal piece embedded just short of his heart. Removing it, the wound doesn’t bleed. His brow furrowed, he traces the gash with his finger. Below, the smoke still rises. The giant’s breath returns to him, in a single cry of victory: alive!

◉ further insight:

Swans have always been a towering, gargantuan group – in stature and in form. And standing right next to Michael Gira comes with a sense of witnessing some sort of quasi biblical figure, like Judge Holden. Tall, face impossible to read, a cowboy without horse, his eyes restless and that of a mad animal, somewhere between anger, anxiety and love. The pendulum can swing either way.

On stage, Gira can explode into sudden bursts of outrage, grab the hair of a headbanger, rip a mobile phone from the hands of a spectator, or berate technicians and punks, sending the sacred barrier between performer and audience careening to the grave, causing shockwaves of sound and emotion that finally melt into a transcendental state that overtakes the room.

In person, Gira is soft – not shy, but of an almost childlike charm, overtaken by gratitude and awe when complimented, the sun suddenly rising on his face.

This push and pull is one that has dominated the man’s work and art. It’s in the sweating, early years of pummeling, mechanical outbursts that grind through silence like the knife of a serial killer through flesh. It’s in the band’s gothic period, which brought in Jarboe to embody abstract longing as a counterweight to the violence. It’s in the folk of the “bunny years”, the songs swaying back and forth lusciously, and the abstract rock of The Great Annihilator. He is of utmost authority and a strange gentleness known only to survivors and mythical beings. Drenched in controversy by design, he somehow became one of our living gods, someone to likewise fear and adore, despise and worship – protean and immovable. 

How does this heart, cut by a life of upheavals, react to an era of constant doom? In his own words, the born Pisces claims songs came easy to him, forming slowly into Swans 16th studio album, The Beggar. But the contents tell a different story: the record marks Gira’s most self-reflective lyricism, coupled with some of his most approachable and nuanced compositions. In his own words, he attests that he was aware these songs might well be his last, which is almost an understatement: they are pockmarked by eschatological rumination, rich in affirmation of the coming end. In a way, this is his very own Blackstar: a drained, stark white heart. It’s a Berlin record; a work of dark alleyways and reunification.

As the record opens, with the ominous and serene ballad “The Parasite”, Gira paints an image of a desolate world that unites its geography with his very being, body and soul: “Breathe my breath into your head / Righteous, pure and sour with death / Here I am, just empty skin / There is no way out, there is no way in / Crucified in fractured fields of blue / All information is equally true / […] Over the plains and under the seas / Follow the lines: they all lead back to me / Tunnel the mountains and cut through the skies / Cut open your belly, look into my еyes”. As the song moves through its eight minutes, the text delves deep into cosmic anxiety, with the land being overtaken by water and the planets converging into one. Gira takes the position of a mad warlock, as he calmly repeats “Come to Me / Feed on me / Come to me / Feed on me”. The song builds into an orchestra of guitars that scratch on the glory of Loveless, announcing an obscure revelation of unfathomable meaning that stands singular in the band’s wide discography. It questions the parasitic nature of existence itself – both living and dead. It sketches a portrait of an inner fire that consumes, in emotion as in body, constantly rolling onwards.

“Paradise is Mine” allows itself the luxury of To Be Kind‘s warm punk-blues, as humanity is reduced to some kind of barbaric state prior to enlightenment: “Now we lay in the mud / In the sea, deep beneath / And we wait where we lay / For the light, for the seep / Of a thought, for a touch / For your breath, for your love / To begin, to unfurl / To create a new world”. This longing for a higher power – for god itself – slowly transforms into existentialism, as Gira growls “Is there really a mind? / Am I ready to die?”

The pondering textures erupt with “Los Angeles: City of Death”, which returns to the band’s most familiar forms of violence: “Sucking colours from the root / Of the syphilis fruit / Flattening this land / Scattering the sand / Burning every tree / Burning every book / Pulverizing the ruins / Of the city that he shook”. Here it is again, this push and pull, as Gira rhymes “run” and “become”. The song can be seen as a war cry for an apocalypse angel, or an homage to fellow giants such as Kenneth Anger or William Burroughs, as Luciferian imagera of a blinding sun the size of an atom bomb abounds. It’s astounding – and yet, it only opens up the record further for what is to come.

“Michael is Done” is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s Michael on Michael, laconic and flirtatious: “Now Michael is done / Stripped bare of pretense / Soaking his sheets / While counting insects” – Gira fell of a roof in 2021 when a wasp attacked him. Wouldn’t that have been a shit ending of the story? The song climaxes into a blistering moment of pure euphoria, suggesting the opening of Heaven’s gate and singing angels, before it sinks back and Gira finishes the joke: “When Michael is gone / Some other will come / When the other has come / Then Michael is done”. It’s counter-intuitive in its gesture – wouldn’t we expect this man, so characterised by anger and struggle, to eulogise himself with the sincerity of Bowie’s “Lazarus”? But it succeeds precisely because of that: it abandons all sense of pretension, as the lyrics announce.

At least the gentle dream-pop of “Unforming” – a sober rumination similar of This Mortal Coil – abandons the humour for gentle introspection: “Just by thinking I’m here / I will soon disappear / Who cares and who knows / Where I’ve been or will go? / My true name was written / In the water and snow / And that was the time / To let it all go.”

Now marks the time to finally talk about death. I’ve recently seen somebody in my circle choose to end their life. While our paths crossed a lot lately, good friends of mine had certainly been closer with him – witnessing their horror and bereavement mirrored my own mourning. But these emotions also came through the lens of an artist that had left what is now understood to be their legacy: a statement which had to be read within the light of what came later.

Time complicates all that, because the mourning won’t vanish – yet I’m fully aware that these words will be read years or even decades after these very moments I write them in, dots on a line that still moves forward and past itself. In Christian theology, the dead don’t speak to us, as they’re left behind on this forward movement, their presence impossible to change because they have gone. Yet this isn’t quite true, as it’s drenched in the arrogant thinking that a wild, wide mind can just be encompassed in the image of a postcard, when in reality it still unravels itself in its absence, either in the spectral presence of a ‘ghost’ (if one chooses to believe in such things) or the very art that is their life.

Because, in fact, an artist is not made immortal simply by his presence, or the perfection of his work (if one chooses to believe in such things), but the fire of his torch, which is taken up and carried on by those who continue further on down their path. This does not mean indulging in cosplay or cover versions, but embodying their many qualities and complexities, which in itself are held within the human spirit, and always have been. The Beggar acknowledges this in each moment, as Gira embraces a newfound hope and optimism that there will always be a Michael, revealing a form of loving besides the ego.

This is the pull, but where is the counter of the push? Gira spends a lot of time interrogating the consumption of our self, of parasitic existence and addiction. “Why Can’t I Have What I Want Any Time That I Want?” grapples with the realities of being a dry alcoholic, the inner demonic urge to return to the bottle, the substance a part of every fibre of the body. It’s painful to listen to, delivered with the swaying grace of an Ennio Morricone theme as the demon beckons: “Give me more, give me more / I am your supplicant, I’m your whore / I’m unconscious on the floor / But my hand is reaching for your door / There’s a shadow of your taste / And the bloodrush in my gut / No, it’s never, never enough / Why would I ever give you up?” It returns to the dark “Helpless Child” and “Animus” off Soundtracks of the Blind; a moment where the mirror turns dark.

“The Beggar” likewise seems obsessed with abusive relationships, but is much more diffuse, taking the perspective of a sinister hermit whose disgust at society expresses itself from high atop a tower, as vanity surrounds the lands below. Rich with motives of vanitas (“I hear the whispering of angels / I see the dust is made of jewels / I swallow liquid from a river / Fed by the sewage of the cruel”), it’s possibly the most political song here, but also defiant towards Gira’s many haters that act in bad faith. Its echoes of The Seer‘s grim realities are balanced out by “The Ebbing”, which could be classified as Swans’ take on drone, extending a single note over most of its 11 minutes, as it builds from a simple folk song to a strong choral climax. As the lyrics pirouette ego dissolution in death, and time becomes meaningless in the drawn out drone of voices, the song seems the most direct figurative interpretation of the very moment of dying on The Beggar.

But what comes after? Imagining Hell itself, Gira returns to images of his past in “The Memorious”, which seems directly inspired by his time working in a copper mine as a teenager in Israel: “It slides down our throats and it fill up our lungs / Feeding young minds with thickened oil and blackened scum / Clawing blind, pounding rock / Killing light with grit and grime / Breaking hands, marking time, sucking dust, sucking dust / Sweating copper tears that are sent up in buckets to the crust”. As the song moves on, all grooving blues guitars and industrial rhythm, it’s impossible not to read the mines as a direct transfiguration of Lucifer’s realm: “But way, way, way up high / There’s a square hole that opens up to the sky / Exhaling hollow thoughts that like sparrows now fly / Scattering tiny shadows over continents of pale and hardened mud”. When Gira speaks of the past as “the map […] carved into my back”, he mirrors the lascivious poetry of Clive Barker, where our actions directly morph our body into something to be read.

“The Memorious” is the last track of the digital version of The Beggar, but the vinyl finds a different ending: “No More of This” (significantly the seventh on digital) imagines the thereafter – maybe heaven or just sweet empty silence – through the blissful harmony of a church-hymn-influenced country ballad. It’s almost reminiscent of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, with Gira lowering the curtain himself: “Goodbye lovers / Goodbye friends / Goodbye daughter / Goodbye sons / I pray to heaven that you exist / Within a cloud of healing mist / That permeates your deepest being / That bathes your soul with a light that cleans”, and with a final smirk, demanding: “Give me more / More, more”. Embracing dying, he’s also shrugging it off: he’s not yet finished.

And as if that hadn’t been epic a finish enough, there is also the 45-minute (!!) “The Beggar Lover (Three)” (which sits penultimate on the digital version), a composition of collage work that delves through a myriad of forms and feelings. Opening to a darkly romantic monologue of Michael’s wife Jennifer Gira, it also includes a recording of the couple’s daughter, Saoirse, singing a ditty for her father, as well as a wide array of rhythms, textures and sounds that are hard to encompass with words. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of Soundtracks for the Blind in how thorough its experimentation with Swans’ canvas becomes. It plays with classical church organs and post-minimalism, heavy all caps ROCK and jazz fusion – and occasionally even veers into the electronic side of Industrial, the kind that Severed Heads explored on Since the Accident. It almost feels like a sonic parallel to David Lynch’s imagery (ca. Twin Peaks) with how cinematic, surreal, foreboding and suggestive much of it forms. It’s an album-length work in its own right, that – due to its thematic consistency and sonic similarities – still makes sense as a smaller part of The Beggar: the feverish nightmare of a man that’s faced his own death at the hands of a tiny insect.

Sixteen albums into Swans and 69 years into his life, Michael Gira has done what many thought impossible: he’s made a record that leaves himself behind. Even at his very best and most secular – on Soundtracks for the Blind and The Seer – he’s attempted to exorcise demons which now fall off his sides like dried up leeches. It’s noteworthy that this latest record is on par with those two in quality, because it marks his largest leap forward in a long time. By imagining a future without himself, Michel Gira has opened up an eternity of possibilities. He’s let the light shine in – and that is deeply moving. He’s found peace. 

Thank you, Michael. 

See you soon.