Swans, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, Young God Records, 2010 –
My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, the title of Swans’ 2010 record, refers to Michael Gira dying and following his parents up to heaven on a rope of smoke, and obliquely to the relief from asthma he experienced after giving up smoking. It is very much a journey into the unknown, as any endeavor would venture after a thirteen year hiatus. The new six-piece version of Swans includes members from different incarnations of the band—Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn on guitar, Phil Puleo on drums, and Chris Pravdica on bass, as well as the percussionist Thor Harris. (Jarboe’s absence, though significant, is not conspicuous. She and Gira have not spoken in over ten years).
My Father is a very personal work and as such can be opaque. It is also a distinctly American record, whose grooves are long on Anglo-American imagery and theme. Apolitical and non-didactic as ever, it is still a record aware of its timing and purpose on earth. It opens with what sounds like the tolling of church bells (they are, in fact, struck tubular bells) calling for us to assemble and have our minds wiped clean by the guitar which follows and leads us into the heart of darkness. On the first track, “No Words/No Thoughts”, Gira’s voice floats as voices did in early, easy West Coast psychedelia. Some of the idiosyncratic timing reminiscent of the No-Wave era remains on the surface. The brass and pepper drum that has always marshaled the parade of Liars is still there, as is Gira’s embossing of his narrative with oblique, gnomic statements and questions. His message is increasingly sophisticated, delivered from so many points of view that the very notion of point of view dissolves, and with it the weight of traditional truth and falsity. Literary, intense, occasionally petulant—thus the record comes to itself, charging with the thick Faulknerian gothic corruptness that drives it on. If we be Liars, our flesh will be burned and dissolved in sensory overload, heat and high volume.
“Reeling the Liars in” casts an image of divine vendetta against deceit into elegiac simplicity—a Western campfire tune sung on the canvas of Vereshchagin’s “The Apotheosis of War”; and led by a stridently resigned pied piper who will conduct them all, himself included, into the flames and thus by his sacrifice be cleansed. For as Kierkegaard wrote, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith”, and only through this faith can man become conscious of his eternal validity, just as Abraham, in binding his son Isaac and lighting the sacrificial fire, kept his anxiety to himself. This, according to Kierkegaard, is the entrance to a form higher than the universal, offered here by the Liar in the form of his tongue: “Here is my tongue, now cut out my sin”. Perhaps all sins are committed by mouth, or are only symbolic acts of dishonesty. “The only true thing,” can then be to burn the liar pile, yourself at the center.
“Jim”, which is in fact a tribute to Jim Thirwell, is the most abstruse track, not least because one sentence hardly seems to follow the one before it, but because we do not yet fully understand the influence of Thirwell upon Gira, and therefore the signs point in every direction at once. Thirwell’s projects have always marbled savagery and precision—a technologically precise savagery, a scream the kind of despair we call defiance, a theme taken up by Camus, who wrote of our choice between acceptance of the absurd—“to drink the green sea, to drift upon the scarlet breeze”, or escape by suicide. To Jim he says, “ride your mechanical beast to heaven,” while elsewhere, to himself, he pledges martyrdom: “Dear God in heaven, I’ll hang for you.”
Gira’s relationships with his parents are at, or close to, the heart of much of his work. He had what he described as a “[by Western standards] terrible, just horrible childhood” the details of which we know very little, except that his mother was an alcoholic, and that he did time in an adult prison in Jerusalem for selling drugs. “My Birth” would not be the first homage he has written to his mother. That most impossible of all relationships to zero out here burns in the white sand “in the blood that you spilled”. And in the distance he hears “the howl of the beast”—perhaps slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. The shadows and single peeping eyes of family legacy loom always behind doors standing ajar as he says, “please never forgive me / Please spit on my name / But hold on to my memory, and keep me to blame.”
“You Fucking People Make Me Sick” is a poetic rumination beneath layers of irony and persona. Part lullaby, part Wagnerian thunder-aria, this antiphonic duet with Devendra Banhart and Gira’s three-year-old daughter, Saoirse, harnesses the freedom allotted only to those who acknowledge their worthlessness and failure. Likewise does “Inside Madeline”, a song written for his daughter but not performed by her. Inspired by watching a child wander aimlessly through a field of snow, he reminds her she is “free to drift across the sky / […] free to be a shape just becoming.”
You Fucking People Make Me Sick
The “choking hold” that began in “Eden Prison” harks again to the nihilism without which Modernism would not have been (evidently Gira is not writing about the Eden Prison in New Zealand), and to the gyre-mediated historical motion of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. Even as one frees himself from the “greasy ochre walls” of the prison, another ship sets sail on the crimson sea with a cargo bound for Eden. The “supine wild beast upon the slab” who now moves “through the roots of the trees” is stalking the living God, whose flesh he cannot reach. At times wandering into Nick Cave territory, this track is otherwise musically closer to some older Swans material, and like some of Nick’s own material point as if to say, see? You don’t have to kill yourself to extract the demons that burr and marble in your heart, after all.
Finally, “Little Mouth”, a chain gang spiritual for wraiths trapped in heaven, and an appropriately elegiac closer to the album, bears the full weight of the Cloud of Unknowing, for it is a love song—a devotional longing for nothingness. “Teach me please, to cease to resist,” Gira asks. “May I find my way to the reason to come home / May I find my way to the foot of your throne.” He, or his persona, say this knowing what little he can get by asking. But he asks knowing full well that no such throne exists. Why then? Swans is a project of awareness, of the corporeal world and its self-destruction, and of the possibility of a better future, longs for a place to call home for eternity. Here, at last, he reaffirms his intention “to elevate, to make you levitate, almost like having it erase your body and lift you up to Heaven.” To do so without a trace of self-indulgence is testament to the authenticity of Swans: “The only thing I look for is something that is true, authentic and penetrating,” Gira writes. “I don’t have any particular allegiance to a style or sound. It’s more to do with the thread of probing, of looking for what’s inside.”
The nihilism that was so important to 1900 and to Modernism, now predicate to market genres and in the lazy reactions of every guitar hero whose name rhymes with a brand of lunch meat, reaches a kind of conclusion in Swans. Yet they are not, to my understanding, Postmodern. They are the mulch of les fleurs du mal; they are the ivory dumped overboard into Conrad’s Congo River. They have turned the corner from Modernism and found, as Cioran predicted, nothing. But they have courage. In the same way that Maurizio Bianchi indulges in decadence to outstrip it, Gira marches Quixotically out against windmills he himself has built, hauling his own steamship-sized corpse over a South American hill, succeeding by leaping into a place of paradoxes and impossibilities, where everything you experience is an illusion, yet “nothing inside you is real” either.