Review Summary: Both musically and thematically, To Be Kind comes off as the culmination of Michael Gira's entire musical career and makes a worthy successor to the band's previous landmark record The Seer.
When considering frontman Michael Gira’s somewhat distressing description of his own childhood, it comes as little surprise that Swans’ position at the very forefront of experimental rock music has remained relatively consistent throughout their three-decade career – a claim which could hold little ground attributed to many other artists, if any. I mention Gira’s past only for the reason that a perception of humanity skewed to the point of incomprehension by a solitary life on the streets of Jerusalem lies at the very heart of Swans’ earliest works. It is only with To Be Kind, Swans’ latest studio effort released thirty-two years after their breakthrough Filth, that Gira fully comes to terms with his own life, and what it truly means to be human.
Following a baptism of fire among the brutal New York ‘no wave’ scene of the early 1980s, a series of critically-acclaimed records leading up to 1997’s seminal Soundtracks For The Blind and a thirteen-year hiatus, Swans returned to the post-rock scene with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and, more importantly, The Seer – the work with which To Be Kind was destined from conception to be forever compared. Upon first inspection the two are incredibly similar – both are two hours long; both feature a series of tracks built upon delicate texturing, mesmerising repetition and frankly uncomfortable vocal work; both revolve around a single half-hour piece at its core. They even share similar artwork.
And yet among To Be Kind’s greatest assets are the points where it differs most from The Seer. The album kicks off with ‘Screen Shot’, an eight-minute introductory track featuring a simple, repeated acoustic riff upon which layers of guitar, vocals and percussion are gradually built until ending in a swirling crescendo of noise-rock. Though similar in structure, the almost ‘funky’ tonal shifts of the guitar and vocals make the track a far cry from the beautifully monotonous cultish chanting of ‘Lunacy’, The Seer’s opener. The album continues with ‘Just A Little Boy’ – a more atmospheric piece reminiscent of ‘Mother Of The World’ and a prime example of the disjunction between the instrumentation of rock and post-rock – and ‘A Little God In My Hands’, the album’s lead single, whose jam-along bassline and sinister piano explore uncharted territory for the band.
‘Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’, however, is undoubtedly the centrepiece (and, perhaps, masterpiece) of the album. The fifteen-minute first part of the track progresses from a shockingly volatile opening through fields of rolling percussion and brutalised guitars to a breath-taking finale culminating in echoing chants and cries of ‘Bring the sun’, marking a career highpoint for the band. These chants fade away into a more atmospheric – but nonetheless gripping – second part to the piece titled after the eighteenth-century Haitian revolutionary. The numerous inseparable movements are here characterised by choruses of swirling, distorted guitars juxtaposed with moments of relative quiet, overlaid with sound effects.
The album’s second disc, amazingly, fails to disappoint on any account following the impressions of the first. ‘She Loves Us!’, though a lengthy (seventeen minute) reintroduction, carries the listener through a series of razor-sharp riffs and savage calls of ‘Your name is ***’ (an astute observation). Similarly, the jazzed-up guitars of ‘Oxygen’ and delicate-yet-powerful ascension of ‘Nathalie Neal’ continue to bear the album’s incredibly high standard. Though there are moments where, musically, a little momentum is lost (namely ‘Some Things We Do’ and ‘Kirsten Supine’), these moments feel both necessary and natural pauses; there is never a point at which the writing fails to impress, or astound.
Swans, like many other post-rock acts, are known for their use of vocals not to convey explicit meaning but instead much like another instrumental: to create tones, moods and atmospheres (hence the frequent use of gibberish in both this album and its predecessor). However, never before in a Swans record have Gira’s lyrics borne so great a significance. Though he begins the album looking to his own past (“I’m just a little boy / I’m not human”), his observations of humanity soon become universal – ‘Oxygen’ provides a grotesque analogy for the human condition (“Peel my skin / Scrape my vein / Break my bones / Feed me now / I’ll steal all the oxygen”), while ‘Some Things We Do’ reduces life on earth down to a menial list of chores (“We touch, we teach, we ***, we love”). Thus the relevance of the artwork, a series of children, humans in their purest form, untouched by the evils of the world, is revealed – what is it innately which makes us human? It is only with the arrival of the closing title track (which features some of Gira’s most poignant and passionate vocal work to date and a truly explosive finale) that we reach that conclusion that to be human is, ultimately, “to be kind”.