Swans had their first ever top 40 record in 2014, more than 30 years after the release of their debut LP. No one said “it’s about time,” because Swans is not the kind of band that was ever supposed to be in the top 40 of anything.
In their early years, Swans were best known for emptying bars across the Lower East Side, and for their maniac frontman licking the floor of CBGB. Michael Gira isn’t the same guy he was 30 years ago, and Swans isn’t anything close to the same band. But for all the forms they’ve taken over the years, none were ever what you’d call charts material.
So how to explain the surprise success of triple LP To Be Kind? The songs aren’t blocks of industrial noise anymore, but they’re still relentless and profoundly uncomfortable. Gira may not be spewing rage (or various fluids) at the same volume he once did, but a deep anger remains at the center of everything. The band continues to defy all popular music customs, with one track clocking in at over 34 minutes. Maybe we’ve finally hit a moment where our culture finds Gira’s screams of existential trauma relatable? That’s probably not something we should celebrate.
Whatever it says about us, it is some kind of comfort to still have Swans around and delivering distinctly terrifying music. Standout “A Little God in My Hands” is the most accessible entry point to this album, a swampy death march with a bassline you could almost conceivably dance to. Then dissonant horns and synths blast in, and there’s a choir of undead voices that sound like the coda of “I Am the Walrus” on DMT, and Gira’s yelling something about “THE UNIVERSAL MIIIIIND.” The inside of my brain sounds like this more often than I’d prefer, but such are the times we live in.