Swans
The Burning World


4.0
excellent

Review

by Green Baron USER (159 Reviews)
July 29th, 2014 | 100 replies


Release Date: 1989 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Even if it's a departure from Swans' traditional sound, The Burning World stands as one of the strongest releases in their discography.

The Swans discography is a long and winding journey, encompassing multiple genres and changes in sound. The Michael Gira-led experimental no wave band began with albums like Filth and Cop, featuring brutal, heavy industrial instrumentation before gradually incorporating gothic rock and folk influences into their style. Their magnum opus, 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind was a hodgepodge of ambiance, brutality, lo-fi indie rock and epic, sprawling symphonic masterpieces spread out over two discs and nearly two-and-a-half hours. Since their breakup and long-awaited resurrection, Swans have kept making critically acclaimed records for the world to enjoy, even if it means utilizing the capacity of multiple CDs to do so.

And no album in their discography has been more controversial than their 1989 effort, The Burning World.

In 1988, the band was offered a major label deal by Uni/MCA Records after their cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” gained significant airplay on college radio stations. Produced by Bill Laswell, The Burning World was a departure from the sound that Swans had spent the past decade building on. Although the album before this, Children of God, saw the band experiment with piano-tinged baroque ballads and post-rock-like instrumentation at points, there was still a sense of brutality and driving force in tracks like “New Mind” and “Beautiful Child”. Listening to most of this, it’s hard to tell that it’s the same band that made Filth a mere six years ago. The whole album is very melodic, with Gira actually singing vocals instead of speaking them with anger. All heavy aspects of the band, whether it be the callous structures of sound or the loud, thumping drum section, are completely absent. If anything, that’s what mostly makes The Burning World such an anomaly in Swans’ discography. To this date, it remains the first – and only – album of theirs released on a major label. It even contains their only charting song (“Saved” peaked at #28 on Billboard’s Alternative publication).

While the band’s earlier albums incorporated industrial into their no wave sound, The Burning World is influenced more by folk and art rock. Acoustic guitar and swooping violins fill the void where the hard-hitting walls of sound used to be, and it adds a sense of beauty to the record. While Swans’ earlier albums were meant to convey an image of hopelessness and violence, the complete opposite is the case here, and it makes for the band’s most accessible record overall. Jarboe plays a big role in The Burning World’s melodic atmosphere; she takes the lead on “I Remember Who You Are” and the cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, and the latter stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. Her angelic, vibrato-tinged vocals mesh in well with the worldly instrumentation, creating an end product that sounds like pure bliss. Meanwhile, on songs like “(She’s a) Universal Emptiness”, Jarboe gracefully harmonizes with Gira, the two of them playing off of each other with wonderful chemistry. Her background ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ on “Saved” add a sense of clarity and redemption, accompanying the song’s lyrical message about unexpected requited love. If The Burning World’s main focus is melody and beauty, it succeeds in many ways.

With that said, there’s still plenty of darkness to be found around the album, albeit not in the traditional Swans sense. Gira’s lyrics are still misanthropic and desperate in general, focusing on hopelessness, murder and depression. It feels rather odd and contrasting to her him crooning about universal emptiness and the end of the world over folky strumming, Jarboe’s background ‘la la las’, sweeping violins and upbeat drum fills. However, when the instrumentation is just as dark as the lyrical content, the album reaches a peak in terms of creating a gloomy, brooding mood that somewhat resembles one of the slower songs on Children of God while also foreshadowing the further evolution of Swans’ sound with their next album, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity. Michael Gira’s monotonous droning vocals on “Jane Mary, Cry One Tear” conveys a sense of apathy and misery, while the slow-paced percussion section is reminiscent of a funeral march, slowly dragging along as Gira talks about a woman who realizes “everything just turns to poison… anything is a cause for sorrow that my mind or body has made”. Similarly, “God Damn the Sun” paints a bleak picture of depression and self-loathing with its simple repeating acoustic riff, wailing strings and Gira’s plodding, spoken-word vocals. The instrumentation perfectly complements the song’s lyrics, which discuss alcoholism, suicide, despondency and hopelessness. “Goddamn the sun, goddamn the light it shines and the world it shows, goddamn anyone who says a kind word” are the album’s closing words. It’s rather ironic that the band’s most melodic and accessible record ends with its darkest song, but it manages to seep out all happiness and uplifting joy that it might have accrued in the first place.

Twenty-five years later, The Burning World still remains the most controversial release in Swans’ three-decade long career. Michael Gira has publicly expressed his distaste for the album, citing producer Bill Laswell’s work as a bad match for the band. In a perhaps beneficial twist of fate, Uni/MCA Records dropped Swans from the label after the album bombed, selling only 5,000 copies. The commercial disappointment was so severe that MCA did everything in their power to pretend like it never happened, erasing it from their catalogue and kicking the perpetrators of the catastrophe out of their sight. Although The Burning World is undoubtedly the most accessible album that Swans have ever made, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The folk and art rock influences that slowly made their way into Children of God are put on full display here, and the result is rather beautiful, even if that’s the complete opposite of what Swans set out to do when they released their filthy, brutal industrial debut. Acoustic licks, swooping violins, Jarboe’s graceful harmonies and Gira’s singing all come together to form a cohesive effort that ranks amongst one of Swans’ best releases.

Even if The Burning World is a huge departure from the walls of sound and vicious drum poundings that dominated Cop and Filth, it did see Swans evolving their sound, one which they would later expand on with the gothic rock-influenced White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life. There’s still some dark moments scattered around the album (e.g. “Jane Mary, Cry One Tear”, “God Damn the Sun”, 90% of Gira’s lyrics), although they’re not found in the traditional Swans sense of aggressively spoken vocals or industrial savageness. While The Burning World might come off as too melodic and accessible for some, it’s an overall unique experience as far as the Swans discography goes, and without a doubt the band’s most underrated effort.



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user ratings (335)
Chart.
3.2
good
other reviews of this album
BMDrummer (3)
By stripping absolutely every element of their past heaviness, Swans have crafted perhaps their most...



Comments:Add a Comment 
Green Baron
July 29th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I needed to write this review.

BMDrummer
July 29th 2014


14374 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

good review, you know my opinion though. Always found this to be underwhelming is all

cb123
July 29th 2014


2215 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

nice review, album needs a little more love round here, gets overlooked so much

jtswope
July 29th 2014


5788 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Pos'd.

ComeToDaddy
July 29th 2014


1774 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Really great review, nice to see this getting some love. Only just checked it out recently but there's some superb tracks on here

BMDrummer
July 29th 2014


14374 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

fuck you took my spot for flagged review :[

Green Baron
July 29th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

sorry Brendan

BMDrummer
July 29th 2014


14374 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

review Holy Money and I'll come find you ;]

Green Baron
July 29th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I might do Cop

BMDrummer
July 29th 2014


14374 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

yeah do that one, the current review could use a replacement

Green Baron
July 29th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

hey, that's why I reviewed this :P



jk

BMDrummer
July 29th 2014


14374 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

:[ whatever, I still have a bunch of Swans reviews

deathschool
July 29th 2014


23034 Comments


Sweet review, Green. You're becoming a forceful user tier writer on this site.

Digging: This Will Destroy You - New Others Part Two

Piglet
July 29th 2014


7798 Comments


i was genuinely surprised by just how good this album was and i think the review does it justice

Snake.
July 29th 2014


21137 Comments


butts

Digging: Space Camp - Inevitable Demise

Supercoolguy64
August 17th 2014


8685 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

might even be a 4.5. Although I don't really care for Gira's vocal performance here

Digging: Godflesh - Post Self

Green Baron
August 17th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah I love this album

Supercoolguy64
August 17th 2014


8685 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

The River is so amazing

Green Baron
August 17th 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Whole album is.

Green Baron
September 2nd 2014


24350 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

yes lakes



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