Review Summary: Does death come with drone, and will it be a borefest?
While the jury's still out on Michael Gira, history will never accuse him of being subtle. Since 1982, he's been yelping and babbling and gurgling and wielding his fearsomely monotonous baritone over whatever yer mum's favourite genre ain't (plus folk) with a solemnity that lends a stern weight to the themes he occupies. Expounding on these themes has never been the point; when Swans are really flying, everything outside of their performance becomes infinitesimally small, and prospective listeners are absorbed before they're given the chance to be pensive.
More than any of its litany of progenitors, The Beggar
wears a heart on its sleeve. This isn't just a shit pun - at the ripe old age of 69, Gira's preoccupation with death is steadily transitioning from daydream to reality; what was a universal concern is now personal as the great beyond looms ever closer. Gira's existential reckoning is thus employed to create a relatively cohesive whole, and the resultant outpouring of music is much easier to connect to than Leaving Meaning
's scattered aspirations. This in itself should be enough to rouse jaded fans from their filthy teeth-grinding.
Be careful with those expectations, though, because The Beggar
is—rejoice or regurgitate—another two-hour sprawl littered with relics of Swans' promiscuous past, produced with a battalion of collaborators, guided by an editorial hand that refuses to practise pragmatism. This means that a lot of the record's high points come with caveats: "The Parasite" sets the scene well and ends with an unsettled, thin and somehow gorgeous drone, but the a capella "Come to me / feed on me
" transition feels like a segue to something that never eventuates. "Paradise Is Mine" elicits a vintage, bass-led late-Swans creepfest, but you'll have to ignore those rather loud and dry falsetto vocals attacking your right ear to get much from its atmosphere. "Michael Is Done" staggers into being with gentle, unsure tremolo picked guitars, and manages a relatively apt transition into its gates-of-heaven-opening middle section which stretches out for many a glorious minute, but when the intro is reprised outta fucking nowhere to serve as a quick-and-dirty outro, the power of the track as a whole is eroded despite its clear intention of using the juxtaposition to stress the narrator's impotence in the face of death. This inconsistency frustrates the nine tracks which comprise Disc One, and is further exaggerated by some odd sequencing, with the more direct and sensibly composed tracks sitting as odd ducks in the album's greater narrative.
But fuck my ears with an amplified rake, highlights kick in the door and assault you for blissful, all-consuming minutes at a time. "Ebbing" and "No More Of This'' provide serious rapturous glory once their crescendos kick in. The creeping power of "The Beggar"'s stately lead guitar melody (if you can get past what might be Michael Gira's most unintentionally hilarious vocal moment in all his 41 years of self-serious ambition) sets up a steadily intensifying conclusion well worth the wait. "Why Can't I Have What I Want Any Time That I Want" closes the disc by gently destroying all hope, a grim apotheosis to previous glories and something of a signature move for the outfit.
Hiding away on Disc Two like an elephant behind a lamppost is the gargantuan "The Beggar Lover (Three)", an intimidating and captivating 40-minute plus composition that could have made a perfectly fine LP on its lonesome. It represents a mighty return of that collage-style songwriting laden with creepy and provocative left-turns that paradoxically thrive on their incongruity. For the most part, this is vintage Swans, and you should give it a chance to overwhelm and discomfort you, preferably at high volumes and high quality. That said, its ending could have used a little more finesse; throughout the final minutes, the vocals from "Leaving Meaning" are interpolated, perhaps suggesting the track's origins, but there is little musical development that takes place before the track abruptly fades out to close things out. The closing track, "The Memorious", doesn't pick up where the previous one left off, and winds up feeling redundant in the wake of its intimidating predecessor.
is definitely flawed as a front-to-back experience, but it's also the most engaging release that Swans have put out since To Be Kind
. It takes patience (uhduh), but when it grabs you, clutching with bony hands and hypnotising with an unblinking stare, each long-awaited chord change, timbral variation, or addition in arrangement strikes like the peal of a great bell through chill night air. While it's ostensibly Gira's mortality that is being elevated, lamented, and celebrated in turn, the bell also tolls for thee, and it's oddly inviting.