Swans - The Beggar review
|Release date:||June 2023|
01. The Parasite
02. Paradise Is Mine
03. Los Angeles: City Of Death
04. Michael Is Done
06. The Beggar
07. No More Of This
09. Why Can't I Have What I Want Any Time That I Want?
10. The Beggar Lover (Three)
11. The Memorious
Swans are once again, for potentially their swan song, a band of excess.
There's a vast discography behind The Beggar, not only decades of Swans releases in various genres and iterations of the band, but also solo Michael Gira records, and various projects like Angels Of Light or Skin, so when The Beggar comes following a pretty big pause since the previous record, thanks to the pandemic, it has a lot to stack up to. Is The Beggar an album I'd recommend to Swans newcomers? Yes and no, mostly no. Yes because Swans is a fantastic band and the sound they're approaching here is still pretty emblematic of a lot of the band's discography anyway, and newcomers wouldn't have the reference of a lot of other Swans records that might've already given them their fill of this particular sound. And on the other hand no, because not only is The Beggar bringing Swans back to their tendency of excessive runtimes after a more "compact" Leaving Meaning, and as far as two-hour long Swans records go, I'd rather someone sit through The Seer or Soundtracks For The Blind instead.
Alright, let's talk about runtimes first. Swans' most emblematic post-reunion work, and perhaps almost as emblematic as their pre-reunion work, is their trilogy of huge two hour albums, The Seer, To Be Kind, and The Glowing Man, something that solidified their stance as a band of excess, but also those were some of their most celebrated records because of how well their sound of slow repetitive buildups and desolate atmospheres of very somber moods worked with a rite of passage type runtime. And with such towering works, it's easy to forget that Swans had no albums over one hour until 1987, and only one two hour album before their break-up, and even their post-reunion run started with a 40-something minutes long album. A return to the towering runtimes obviously brings a mountain of expectations.
Granted, a lot of the runtime of The Beggar is taken by a single 43 minutes long track, "The Beggar Lover (Three)", a song that is not available on some versions of the album, and whose absence would've brought the album to roughly similar runtimes to Leaving Meaning, and all of the other tracks were already available in a rough acoustic form on the fundraiser Is There Really A Mind? album. Speaking of Leaving Meaning, that was an album that was a reset of the Swans lineup, and there was a feeling that Swans was more of a Gira solo project with contributing musicians, but with all of the people who are the core musicians on The Beggar having also performed on Leaving Meaning, there's more of a sense that Swans is closer to a fully fledged band this time around. So there is just a little bit more cohesion between the tracks, which was my main complaint about Leaving Meaning.
My main complaint about The Beggar then, is that the extended runtime doesn't really work here just as well mostly because what it takes from the trilogy of extended albums prior is merely the moodier part without also carrying the intensity it sometimes had, and with it continuing the Leaving Meaning sound towards something closer to the gothic country inspired stuff that Swans did in the early 90s as well as the Angels Of Light solo project, creates an album that creates tension but rarely ever releases it, as well as one whose sound reminds of better Swans and Swans-related work past. On their own, each of the songs of the core album are perfectly fine, and encapsulate a lot of what made Gira such an impressive songwriter, and their sound so compelling, but as a whole the flow of the album suffers in a similar manner that Leaving Meaning, but leaning more towards a lack of something to build towards. There are moments like "No More Of This" and "Ebbing" where the sound does feel more complete, where it feels like the transition from the skeletal tracks on the fundraiser and the final versions brings a lot to the table, especially with how well the backing vocals sound on the crescendo of "Ebbing", but the backing vocals are also what take me out of the experience on tracks like "Paradise Is Mine", regardless of how cool that groove is.
The biggest strength that this album in particular has is that Gira is one impactful lyricist, with a lot of his work past resting as much on the atmosphere of the instrumentals as on the dark lyricism. And here, with a slightly folkier sound, there's an even stronger emphasis on the lyrics, with a lot of the album centered around Gira confronting his mortality, as the musician is reaching his 70s. And with some metarefential songs like "Michael Is Done" and "The Memorious", it feels like an even more specific and personal album as a result. There's a fleeting feeling that this could potentially be the last Swans record, and you all know how much I hate potential swan songs while the artist is still alive and kicking. As much as I would like Michael to end his musical career on his own terms, I'm not sure if I'm ready to consider the possibility of a last Swans record unless it's explicitly stated to be just that.
Which all brings us to that behemoth of a track, one that does indeed sound more unique and most unlike anything else Swans did before, instead bringing elements of dark ambient and sound collage that sound similar to what Gira did with his The Body Lovers / The Body Haters projects. It is the longest Swans song (so far), and ambitious in more than just its runtime. From its aforementioned ambient elements, to its wild sound transitions, to the spoken word part from Michael's wife Jennifer, disorienting percussion, drops of Swans' previous work, weird vocal layering, lullabies, and so on. It feels like the album in capsule within the album, but with the experimentality turned to 11, but that also means that it suffers from the same lack of cohesion and some questionable decisions that the rest of the album suffers from, while also having some very compelling atmospheric moments, some of which also remind me of something like Natural Snow Buildings.
Maybe not the most vital Swans records, and people who only now get into Swans will find albums both better and more accessible than it, and some of it might not be as rewarding even for long-time Swans fans, but there's also so much of it that hits the right notes.
||Written on 05.07.2023 by Doesn't matter that much to me if you agree with me, as long as you checked the album out.|
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