Friday, 21 September 2012


Nostalgia makes a mockery of youth's enthusiasm for radical change. Thanks to an accident of history, I experienced several cod-revolutionary musical movements during my youth: the early years of "indie" when it referred not to an insipid soft-rock but to the legion of independent record labels; the rising hopes of the acid house explosion, which ended in legislation against the beat and not a few drug casualties; the surprising rise of grunge rock; the political ambitions of late 1980s hip-hop. I also got to experience the waves of nostalgia for previous moments of popular radicalism: 1986's anniversary celebrations of the Summer of Love; the curious period when Channel 4 decided to define the past as a series of "greatest moments", reducing Bowie's androgyny on Top of the Pops to a memory equal to that of the space-hopper; the jubilee year reprise of punk's longings for an egalitarian society.

All of which makes me old enough to look down on the youngsters today and say that their revolutions are just cosmetic. And sigh in disappointment at the hopes and dreams carried along in the wake of Lady Gaga's number about being born this way.

I don't really have much time for nostalgia. I found the reformation of Public Image Limited depressing - if I want to hear Metal Box, I'll download it. I won't pay money to see the guy out of the advert for butter dress up like a clown and pretend he is still fighting the system. Yet the resurgence of one band, SWANS, has me excited. Not just because I was a huge fan back in the day - their transition from monolithic noise to an exotic folk behemoth mirrored my own maturity from antagonistic teenager to melancholic young adult - but because their return doesn't hark back to a notional past glory. As I remember it, most people hated SWANS in their first incarnation.

Listening back to their early albums - albums I once trawled record stores to find - I understand why. Sure, Cop has an intensity and a plain-speaking ferocity - the title track reduces police brutality to a despairing chant - and the freezing of various musical forms to a juddering crawl is both intelligent and thuggish. But before Children of God, Michael Gira was really just about the shock tactics. The sparsity of the sound - loud, but with minimal content - allowed me to weave my own fantasies into the music. But Raping a Slave is exactly as obnoxious as its title suggests. It's not really an ultra-hip take on the inherent power imbalance in human relationships.

Gira was never an idiot, and he abandoned the Big Bangs for dynamism and nuance. Children of God remains a favourite album, mainly because of the studied neutrality the music and lyrics bring to a controversial topic. The rumours that the double album would deal with the entire history of Christianity weren't far off, and Gira's ambiguity about the divine and organised religion make this a meaningful contribution to the tradition of works inspired by God. Atheists will find plenty of support for their assault on religious morality and certainty, while the themes of sacrifice and the eroticism of Holy Love are palatable for the thoughtful believer.

The following albums pursued Gira's interest in spirituality and exotic sounds. The Burning World was marred by Bill Laswell's production - if he could bring out SWANS' bucolic interludes, he masked their raw power. But White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life were astonishing: complex orchestration, traditional instruments used like psychedelic guitars, Gira's confidence as a baritone and a marked use of dynamics that was classical in its application. Nobody really gave much of a shit: a similar change in direction from Nick Cave gave the former Birthday Boy a new lease of life. SWANS gradually fell apart and Gira went solo.

Although his Angels of Light project was more popular than SWANS ever were, they lacked something of the band's ferocity and precision. When he reassembled SWANS, I had lost interest but didn't see it as a backwards move. If anything, the subsequent album surprised me by recalling exactly the qualities his recent work had lacked.

And so to the recent solo show by Gira in Glasgow. He suits his older look - the cowboy hat he sports sets him in that long line of American  mavericks who have grown into their music and deny the assumption that rock is a young man's game. His acoustic guitar is more vicious than most band's electrics: the hammering chords encourages spontaneous head-banging, and the single instrument arrangements gave space to his baritone's sinister drawl. It's strange that a simple name change has reignited his passion, but the new SWANS are building on a reputation that grows with the years.

Once upon a time, I longed for a world where SWANS were understood, the whispered intimacies of his SKIN albums were the soundtrack to impossible romances and the masculine aggression of Body to Body, Job to Job were recognised as terse political and social commentary. Now, I find all the early albums unlistenable: not in the way that they were intended, as to be slabs of assaulting noise - frankly, Slipknot can do all that far better, and I don't like Slipknot - but for the rough recording values of the 1980s. Drum machines do not age well.

Perhaps all those failed revolutions took their toll on my idealism, but SWANS today are a more palatable beast. The vitality of the music isn't just an end in itself, but a vehicle for a songwriter who, aging and recognising the flow of time, still has a story to tell.


Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls)

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