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
, 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
, 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.