leaving meaning. – Swans
Released 10/25/2019 – Young God Records
Genres: Experimental Rock/Gothic Country/Post-Rock/Avant-Folk
The new Swans album is an hour and a half long meditation on existence. As the name suggests, “leaving meaning.” deals heavily with the absurd—from questioning our reality in “Annaline” to the dizzying dichotomies delivered on its title track. It’s also got some enormous shoes to fill.
Swans are coming off three of the best albums of the decade: “The Seer,” “To Be Kind” and “The Glowing Man.” All three albums pushed the boundaries of the post-rock genre to entirely new heights. With stellar songwriting and a masterful use of repetition, these albums were truly epic experiences (in the traditional definition, not in the way a gamer might use it to describe his last match).
Between this phenomenal stretch of records and the single that came out this September, “leaving meaning.” was one of my most hyped releases of 2019. Sadly, I can’t say it completely lived up to that excitement.
“Hums,” the album’s first track, might be the worst opening to a Swans album. It’s pretty, but it feels insignificant. “Annaline,” the following track, does such a good job of distancing this record from the last three, and begins in such a similar fashion to “Hums,” that I wonder why the record doesn’t just begin there.
Once we make it through the should-be-interlude and into “Annaline,” we still aren’t given anything all that special. The song is simultaneously pretty and menacing, and it touches on the album’s themes of absurdism and existentialism, if only briefly. Swans frontman and the group’s only constant Michael Gira sings about a moment so special it causes him to question how it could possibly exist. I like the song, but it’s a lackluster opening to an album with a lot to live up to.
“The Hanging Man” is a quintessential late-stage Swans song. Repetition, an enormous build-up, and Gira’s best performance on the record make it one of the album’s highlights. It dwells on death and sickness, and it flips the classic Descartes adage into an amazing quotable—”I am not what I just thought.”
“Amnesia” is my least favorite cut on the record. It’s a worsened reworking of a song the band released in 1992. The sample of the child’s laughter feels forced, making it more cringey than unsettling. A lot of the lyrics are the same between the two versions, but the line “The President’s mouth is a whore / When there’s murder the audience roars” delivers a lot better when it’s buried under some driving drum patterns than when it’s the sole focus of the track.
Next up is the title track, which deals most heavily with the album’s core concept of philosophy and the absurd. Gira doubles down on the “I am / I’m not” refrains from “The Hanging Man,” singing “I can touch it but not hold it / I can be it but not know it” among a dozen other contradictory statements. All of this is done over the most beautiful instrumental on the entire record. It builds slowly but forcefully, then drifts away again. Then “Sunf—er” comes in.
It is exactly as wild as the title suggests. It’s chaotic and inscrutable and another one of my favorite moments on the record. It’s a perfect way to close out the first disc. If the second disc carried this momentum, this would be an essential Swans record.
But it doesn’t, and this isn’t. “Cathedrals of Heaven” represents another weak beginning, but even more so because it follows such a stellar song. It’s the second worst track here, after “Amnesia.” I understand the strategy of placing a more low-key track after the frenetic close of the previous side, but “Cathedrals” isn’t just low-key, it’s outright uninteresting.
“It’s Coming It’s Real” is the highlight of the second side. It’s my favorite song on the record, and is what made me so excited for this album in the first place. It features haunting lyrics, beautiful guest vocals from Anna and Maria Von Hausswolff and an incredible outro. This track sets the bar that the rest of the record often struggles to reach.
There’s a lot of material on this LP and I wish I had the space to talk about it all at length. Some of it is outright amazing, some of it is just good, and some of it leaves something to be desired. It’s entirely possible that I’m evaluating this record a bit harshly because of the three records it follows, but I can still say this with certainty: Those three records had me slack-jawed on first listen. This one did not.