Children have long been a recurring motif in the music of New York band Swans. Throughout the group’s 20+ years of activity, children have often stood as an abstract concept of suffering within Swans lyrics, the subject of both their early brutal mantras (“I’m your stupid naked child/I’m you’re stupid helpless child”) and their later dark poetry (“A cruel fire is calling/This child to his grave/Now he will wander pointlessly/Where no memories are saved”). But it is on “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” the second song off of Swans’ 2014 release To Be Kind, where the image of the child is perhaps most pronounced. Vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and overall bandleader Michael Gira bleats “I’m not human!” in a nasal, faux-little-boy voice, as guitars melt around him and his interjections are underscored by sampled gales of laughter – the effect is simple, yet razor-sharp in its cruelty.
Such cruelty is but one of many traits synonymous with Swans’ music. Throughout the years, the band’s output has run the gamut from incredibly harsh proto-industrial, to gothic rock, to sweeping, damaged soundscapes. Regardless of genre, though, Swans have always been harrowing, daring and utterly original, and To Be Kind is no exception. The two-disc, two-hour-and-change album was released on May 13th, 2014, and is the band’s 13th full-length but stands as one of the finest in the group’s catalog.
To Be Kind follows in the footsteps of the 2012 Swans release, The Seer, and retains the same lineup as that album: Gira on vocals and guitar, Christoph Hahn and Norman Westberg on guitar, Christopher Pravdica on bass, and Thor Harris and Phil Puleo on drums and various other instruments. Much like its predecessor, To Be Kind features a varied range of guest musicians, among them Bill Rieflin, who is a former drummer for R.E.M. (and countless other bands), and indie rock star St. Vincent. But while The Seer was a singular, annihilating wall of sound, To Be Kind is much more freewheeling in its musical attack. Take for instance the demonic funk of “Oxygen,” which marries stabs of guitar and manic Gira vocals with a frenzied-yet-repetitive drumline and horn samples; the song would be almost danceable if it weren’t so chaotic. Or take the 17-minute “She Loves Us!”, which shifts around musically through various incarnations of heavy, droning post-rock but remains anchored around chanted vocals that sound like George Harrison by way of David Lynch.
The standout track of To Be Kind, much like The Seer, is a 30+ minute sprawling epic. The latter album’s centerpiece, also titled “The Seer,” was a draining dirge that eventually built up to a brutal crescendo before gradually wafting away into harmonica wails and serpentine blues. To Be Kind’s epic lynchpin, “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture,” is two songs in one. “Bring the Sun” starts with an extremely heavy, driving riff, one which gives way to a quiet, meditative section and, eventually, a rapturous invocation of the sun. This moment of climax segues into “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a truly strange song that marries samples of horses neighing and Gira’s Spanish/French vocals with psychedelic, Floydian guitar. These two halves, combined into an impeccable whole, serve as one of the most audacious moments in Swans’ musical history, but also one of the best.
To Be Kind is, quite frankly, not for the faint of heart – the album is a draining, challenging listen even if you’re in the right mood for it. But for those with an ear tuned to the avant-garde side of rock music, those willing to suffer through the darkness so that they may yet see light, To Be Kind will prove to be as luminous and bold as the sun itself.