"Usually—I have no other way to describe it—I’m in a sort of vacant state, fooling around on my guitar, and suddenly images start flowing through me. It starts with a phrase or two, then just grows like kudzu on a tree, feeding on hapless me, the unwitting host. I’ve used the conceit of calling the person or entity that inhabits me at these moments Joseph—even wrote a song for him on the record—but in truth I don’t understand the process at all. I’m more than a little frightened of it, actually, and don’t really want to know what goes on there.” — Michael Gira, 2007
So that’s it, then. Six years, four studio albums, and Swans are back to the same place they were after Soundtracks for the Blind, a band in a limbo state, finished with their latest “configuration.” They aren’t dead, as their 1998 live album prematurely professed in its title, but the band as we’ve known them since 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To the Sky is finished. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The reason for the bitter half is obvious, but the sweetness is twofold; first of all, Michael Gira has already said that he’ll continue to tour under the name Swans, albeit with a “rotating cast of collaborators”. The second and more important reason, though, is that The Glowing Man is the best sendoff this phase of the band could have possibly given themselves.
Some bands release albums that are meant to stand alone, silently dissuading critics from making comparisons to their previous releases. Swans are not one of those bands. The Seer, To Be Kind, and The Glowing Man aren’t just a trio of great albums; they’re a trilogy, each installment building upon themes established in the previous one. Structurally, the three are remarkably similar (though The Glowing Man mixes up the formula more than To Be Kind), and there’s a clear tonal progression across the three. The Seer evoked the feeling of a torture chamber with no windows, while To Be Kind was more raw, like a combination of blinding sunlight and unbearable heat. The Glowing Man mixes the two and adds a constant feeling of ascension, the idea that there’s an end goal to the oppressive repetition of the songs within. Alongside this, the soundscapes are more expansive than To Be Kind and less dark than The Seer, which “Cloud of Forgetting” makes clear in its opening seconds. Unlike “Lunacy” and “Screen Shot” before it, the track holds back its main beat for nearly two minutes, opting instead to let the reverb-soaked haze of guitars and dulcimer speak for themselves. The lyrics have changed slightly since the song’s appearance on the live album The Gate—most intriguingly, Michael Gira’s cries of “Satan!” have changed to “God!”—and they create a tone of individualistic spirituality that forms the backbone of the album’s overall lyrical content. On the opener, we also get our first example of Gira’s heavy, droning vocal style that persists through the album, mostly devoid of the rawness that marked songs like “Oxygen” in the past. I don’t see this as an issue, though; the vocals fit with the more measured, focused sound of this record. If “Cloud of Forgetting” had opened The Seer or To Be Kind, its slow pace would have seemed plodding, but here it works. It works so, so well.
But that’s enough talking about albums that aren’t The Glowing Man, firstly because it’s a tall enough order to even begin to talk about the album that is The Glowing Man, and secondly because the second track, “Cloud of Unknowing”, isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s a heavily improvisational piece (the opening few minutes will undoubtedly spawn a few “when do they stop tuning their instruments?” jokes), but the band pulls out so many surprises over its 25 minutes that I find it hard to talk about the track in-depth for fear of spoiling them. Both of the band’s percussionists are in top form, with Thor Harris providing a memorably eerie pattern of bell chimes toward the end of the track, and Phil Puleo orchestrating a series of pounding drum buildups that culminate in some of the album’s best moments. Next comes “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black”, a cerebral and borderline impenetrable piece that repurposes Gira-penned lyrics from Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex. The band are at their most droning and repetitive on this track, where the only prominent change is a single rhythm switch-up in the middle of its 15-minute length. A whining electronic noise moves from left to right in the mix, and even though it feels like auditory satiation should kick in after a while, it stays at the forefront of your thoughts the whole time. The track is an experience, to say the least, and the gradual letdown of “People Like Us” is much needed by the time it’s over.
And then there’s “Frankie M”, which starts the second disc off in style with over ten minutes of percussion-led buildup before settling into a disarmingly straightforward groove with paradoxically pleasant backing vocals. The lyrics flow from existential pondering to a section where Michael Gira monotonously lists off the names of various drugs like an idiosyncratic cover of Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”. It might be Swans’ tightest long form piece (more than anything else they’ve released this decade, it feels like a coherent song more than a collection of movements), and it’s a fitting opener to the effectively flawless latter part of the album. The band follows it with “When Will I Return?”, a short, haunting song with Gira’s wife Jennifer on vocals, relaying the story of her own real-life sexual assault experience. “I still kill him in my sleep”, she bitterly confesses, while everything but the periodic strumming of Michael Gira’s guitar stays latent in the background. Though the more instrumentally heavy outro consists solely of the words “I’m alive”, the verse imbues them with several layers of intrinsic meaning.
The penultimate and titular track of The Glowing Man is the final version of a song that Swans have been revising and refining since 2011, a song that initially manifested itself as the title track of The Seer and later as “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” on To Be Kind. “The Glowing Man” is the best of the three, and the best track on its album. The “Bring the Sun” opening is still there in spirit, but the explosion from the beginning of the 2014 recording is pushed back seven minutes in this iteration. That time is filled up with one of the strangest and most fascinating passages on the album, where Gira chillingly recites statements like “he’s a real go-getter” and “he’s a real heartbreaker” before descending into pure unhinged insanity, yelling the word “no” over and over (sometimes throwing a “yes” into the mix) as the instrumentation gets more and more chaotic. Once the explosion finally comes, it feels exponentially more earned than on the To Be Kind recording. And the second half of the song…it’s something else. For the first time since The Angels of Light’s 2007 album We Are Him, Michael Gira’s creative persona Joseph (referenced in the quote that opens this review) becomes the subject of a song, and his personification here isn’t pretty. “Joseph is saying that you are a liar,” Gira screams as a swirl of guitars and female vocals rise up around him, before coming in with “I’m a glowing man, I am!” Is Michael Gira referring to himself, or is Joseph speaking through him? Are they one and the same in his mind? The harrowing yet ethereal drone that closes the track recalls the same musical theme of ascension that “Cloud of Forgetting” introduced, which the triumphant closer “Finally, Peace” puts into words with its refrain of “the glory is mine”. On an album with only a few glimpses of light peppered throughout its two-hour length, closing on such an empowering note feels like a ray of sunlight in the fascinating, all-consuming darkness.
Now, I’ll admit my approach toward critiquing this album so far may have been misguided. I’ve been overly technical, trying and often failing to analyze as much of the music as I can, going track by track to try and decipher what makes this album so enormously great. But the simple fact is that The Glowing Man stirs up feelings in me that I can’t fully describe. I haven’t been this deeply affected by an album since Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell last year, and that was anomalous in and of itself. If you take one thing away from reading this review, it should be this: The Glowing Man isn’t an album to be talked about. It’s an album to be experienced. And I hope for as many people to experience it as possible.
So, after all that, is The Glowing Man the best Swans album? Honestly, I wouldn’t say so; it’d take a bona fide miracle for them to top Soundtracks for the Blind. But I will go so far as to say that it’s the best work they’ve made since their reunion, and my personal pick for the best album of the year so far. The album is monumental in every sense of the word, a visceral testament to the abilities of an incredible group of musicians, each member contributing equally to its breathtaking chiaroscuro. I don’t know when Swans will rise from this fresh pile of ashes, but at this point I find it difficult to care. I could stay in this afterglow for years. Lie down. Turn up the speakers. Close your eyes. Ascend. A MINUS