Essential New Music: Swans’ “Leaving Meaning”

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The last Swans album, 2016’s The Glowing Man, looked for a moment like it might really be their last. It capped a run that was epic in every way: songs that ran a half hour or longer, tours that stretched to years and a sustained energy that no one wanted to dishonor by letting it go flat. And it captured, as much as a studio album can capture, the essence of the live band. So bandleader Michael Gira went into the tour supporting it saying that this was the end. 

Turns out that it was the end of “they,” but not the end of Swans. Leaving Meaning refigures the “group” as Gira and whoever he chooses to work with. Members of the 2010-2017 band appear, as do figures from other phases of Swans. But there are also people who were never Swans before or aren’t going to be with Swans for the long haul because they have other things to do. The Necks, an improvisational trio from Australia, back Gira on two tunes, and cabaret chanteuse Baby Dee sings lead on another. Enjoy them for a moment, first because that’s all you’re going to get, but also because the collaborations work really well. The Necks may simmer where the last Swans sustained a raging boil, but they still know how to keep the tension right where it needs to be. 

Gira takes advantage of the unfixed personnel to unmoor the Swans sound. There are songs that ponder the need for purpose and the point of existence. Others look unflinchingly at what people do when they’re sure their right. “Sunfucker” will make you want to bar the door and find an escape hatch to avoid the narrator’s unholy—or is it too holy?—glee. There are still songs that rock for a good long while. But others drift, soft and sensual, or funereal and resigned, and they provide some of the album’s most sublime moments. As on The Glowing Man, Gira pulls a song from out of his past. This time it’s “Amnesia,” off 1992’s Love Of Life. By slowing it from its former galloping pace to a funereal trudge, he recasts it from a celebration of personal dissolution to a sour contemplation of a society in decline. Leaving Meaning asks what’s next, and finds plenty still to do. 

—Bill Meyer