Essential New Music: Swans’ “The Beggar”

Inside the first minute of “The Parasite,” which kicks of the digital and CD (but not LP) editions of The Beggar, Swans mainman Michael Gira intones the words, “All information is equally true.” Before it ends, he ponders, “I wonder if your breathing is stealing all the air.” One might suppose that he’s dealing with our current age of disinformation and distrust, but Gira is not the sort of writer to confine his attention to present-day events. Whatever shenanigans people have been up to during our recent dark age are just reruns of scenes that have been enacted since humans painted their first creative representations of stuff that may or may not have happened on the walls of caves. And Gira is more interested in engaging with the archetypal human motivations that drive those patterns than he is in weighing in on their most current iterations.

Accordingly, the latest Swans album is a series of exhaustive depictions of individuals dissolving into or materializing out of roiling, collective states. One song immerses the listener in the point of view of a person yearning to be activated by holy instruction, while a couple others long as intensely for the release that comes by embracing some variety of annihilation. Yet another gives the perspective of a deity who knows that they only exist because humans commit sacrifices in their name. 

Musically, The Beggar completes the process of transformation that began when the most widely celebrated incarnation of Swans wound down in 2017. In concert and on albums such as 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind, that version of the band enacted unending rock ’n’ roll cataclysms. These new songs are softer, slower and more celestial, occupying the holes in space and time that were torn open by their predecessors. They bear up listeners on swirling clouds of steel guitars, massed voices and tense, withholding rhythms, only to deposit them before Gira’s looming voice. 

Your choice of format will influence exactly where the music takes you. The two-LP vinyl version is sequenced quite differently from the CD and download, building to an early climax on side two, then slowly settling into a resigned embrace of oblivion. The digital editions, on the other hand, follow an arc that plunges into the depths, then resurfaces like some breaching whale that’s strapped on a rocket in order to leave the ocean behind and hurtle into outer space. Most of the second CD (or second half of the download—don’t throw away that sticker on the shrink wrap, kids!) is devoted to a track you won’t find on the vinyl. “The Beggar Lover (Three)” lasts nearly 44 minutes, during which it references many phases of Swans’ four-decade existence while Gira and some found vocals (including a squealing baby) take turns commenting upon the unfolding confusion before resolving into a spacey, up-tempo reworking of the title track from the previous Swans album, 2019’s Leaving Meaning. Is it indulgent? Hell, yes. But if you want restraint, you don’t want Swans.

—Bill Meyer