Swans: The Beggar

In 2014 something incredible happened that nobody familiar with modern American experimental rock music could have anticipated. After over thirty years and thirteen studio albums, a Swans record cracked the Billboard Top 40 making it one of the most popular records in the US. The album was To Be Kind, a two-hour grim masterpiece filled with darkly hypnotic songs featuring raucous instrumentation and passionate vocalizing by one Michael Gira, the band’s founder and only consistent member. Nine years and three studio albums on, Swans have delivered The Beggar, another two-hour feast for the ears, this one conjured by six core band members, only three of which were part of Swans’ 2014 lineup.

The repeated chord that rings-in The Beggar’s eight-plus minute opener, “The Parasite”, arouses an immediate emotional resonance that foretells a very specific macabre mood that, remarkably, echoes through the album’s subsequent recordings. The oddly groovy-yet-creepy “Paradise is Mine” has Gira swinging erotically back and forth as he sings lustful lines like, “come to us, from the muck, learn to speak, learn to fuck.” The three-and-a-half minute “Los Angeles: City of Death” may be the album’s lone shot at a crossover single in both style and length. With its driving beat, droning guitars, and female backing vocals chanting away before dropping into its tense final thirty seconds. “Michael is Done” is an oddly meta moment wherein Gira sings of himself in the third person for two minutes before the song opens and soars with rousing percussion and gorgeous synths that lasts for approximately three minutes before devolving in the song’s final minute into Gira and a female backing vocalist repeating “Michael is done, is done, is done.”

The Beggar’s title track is the first disc’s most tense and brooding moment. “Searching for a place to beg, now every word’s a new beginning, when there’s nothing left to give, what if I steal the child inside you?” Gira sing-speaks. The last two minutes of the ten-minute piece having Gira growling in pain before ghostlike howling enters and steady drumming drives the entire thing home. Conversely, “No More of This”, the song that immediately follows “The Beggar”, is the record’s most gentle and swaying. With its slide guitar and tender percussion, strings, and background singers, “No More of This” offers Gira’s most seemingly sincere and kindly wishes as he beautifully says goodbye to life, speaking lines like, “…may an ocean of tiny stars, enfold and hold you wherever you are.”

The first disc is concluded with “Ebbing” and “Why Can’t I Have What I Want Any Time That I Want?”, two songs totaling just under twenty-minutes combined. The former begins as quirky horror-folk and evolves into a combination of choral and syncopated percussive bombast. The latter begins sounding like what a 1980s soap opera theme may sound like if Swans were asked to create one. The song takes an appropriately dramatic turn as Gira ends the lengthy number, and the first disc, repeating the song’s title.

At just under forty-four minutes, “The Beggar Lover (Three)” could have been an album by itself. Instead, it makes up one of the two songs on the second disc of this collection. Admittedly, this track is a patience tester. It’s advised that perhaps you give yourself a break between the first and second discs as there’s a lot going on here. To provide some context, “The Beggar Lover (Three)” is part of a trilogy of songs that began with “Number One Of Three”, an album by Michael Gira’s project The Body Lovers. The second part of the trilogy is the track “Look at Me Go”, a bonus song that appeared on the special edition of Swans’ 2010 album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to The Sky. The first four minutes of the song feature bells and droning strings before a short monologue is given by Jennifer Gira, seemingly about the inevitability of death. Michael’s vocals don’t appear until ten minutes in when he repeats the words “sleepy Michael, milky Michael”. This is followed by roughly sixteen minutes of instrumentation that attempts to stave off listener ennui by changing every few minutes, cycling through everything from soothing vocalized oohs to trippy tape effects sprinkled with clipped mouth noises to primitive drumming. Just before the twenty-seven-minute mark, Saoirse Gira (Michael’s toddler daughter?) sings the children’s nursery rhyme “This Old Man”, and, given the context, it’s absolutely terrifying. The final minutes of “The Beggar Lover (Three)” have Michael Gira returning vocally to bestow upon us contradictory lines like, “I can see it but not see it” and “I will lose it, but I keep it” over a woozy, jazzy groove. “The Beggar Lover (Three)” is, without a doubt, a polarizing piece. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it for anything more than something to put on in the background as a group of friends get pleasantly blasted on a Saturday night. The Beggar is concluded with “The Memorious”, a repetitive eight-plus minute epic that has Gira reading nihilistic poetry that includes Burroughsian lines like, “Giant steel insect arms rise up in clouds of rust, then they pivot, and they groan, as they violate and they thrust.”

It should go without saying that The Beggar won’t be for everyone. And although its excellent first disc holds a myriad of charms, its second disc makes for a much more trying listen, mostly due to the forty-four minute “The Beggar Lover (Three)”. Still, for an album this long, it’s remarkable that Swans rarely stray from their signature sound. The moments when something arises that veers even slightly from Gira’s aesthetic are brief. The Beggar further strengthens Swans niche position as America’s greatest experimental band.

Rating: 7.2/10

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