Album of the Month: Swans’ Sprawling, Triumphant ‘The Seer’

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The novelist Howard Jacobson recently gave a talk at the Edinburgh Festival wherein he bemoaned the tendency of readers to deem a book bad because they disliked the characters or the subject matter. Jacobson is generally an old windbag, but he was right on the money with this particular observation: “To be a good reader you have to have strong stomach: the better the reader, the stronger the stomach.” And so it goes with music.

I’ve had a theory for a while that the thing that distinguishes people who really care about and love music from those who just see it as entertainment is that the former group don’t always expect music to be entertaining. This isn’t any sort of dig at the latter group, by the way — people are of course free to appreciate music and any other form of art in any way they wish. But it’s a distinction worth making nonetheless.

All of this brings us to Swans, who have always required a strong stomach. In their early days, they used to delight in being as loud, confrontational and generally nasty as possible, often sending people from their shows in tears (if anyone turned up at all.) In David Browne’s biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, Thurston Moore recalls a key early exchange with Swans mastermind Michael Gira that basically sums up the Swans experience: “We [Sonic Youth] liked the idea of having fun with music… and [Gira] once said to me, ‘This is not fun.'”

Gira reactivated the Swans name two years ago after a 14-year hiatus, and it’s no surprise to find that he hasn’t exactly mellowed with age — the 2010 Swans comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, for instance, memorably included a song called “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” Live, they remain similarly intense, as well as being pulverizingly, earplug-demandingly loud. You don’t go to a Swans show for fun. This is not fun.

All of this means that casual listeners might approach The Seer with trepidation. It’s two hours long, for a start, and amongst other things contains a title track that stretches for over 30 minutes. But curiously enough, as far as Swans records go, The Seer isn’t actually all that inaccessible — certainly not in comparison to, say, their debut Filth or 1984’s thoroughly unpleasant Young God. It’s long, sure, and it has its moments of piledriving intensity, but they’re leavened with moments of surprising sweetness and light. The sense of dynamics is welcome, and ultimately only serves to heighten the album’s impact.

The centerpiece is the aformentioned title track, which builds in intensity with such slow, inexorable force over its half-hour running time that it’s the musical equivalent of being slowly squished under a glacier. It’s a remarkable piece of music, grinding to a nearly overhwelming crescendo and then winding down in a haze of elegiac and surprisingly pretty harmonica. (And then a weird coda where Gira coos “I love you too much” in a sing-song voice that’s frankly kinda terrifying.)

As if that wasn’t all enough, the song comes with a six-minute sequel entitled “The Seer Returns,” which seems to describe some sort of cataclysmic execution and contains the lines “All the mountains are crumbling/ All the canyons are thundering/ All the people are fucking/ They’re just a pile of writhing selfish bliss.” And it features former Swans singer Jarboe on guest vocals. At this point, hardcore fans are getting all funny in their jeans.

While nothing quite matches the glory of the title track, there’s still another 90 minutes’ worth of music here: two other 20+ minute epics in closing tracks “A Piece of Sky” and “The Apostate” (the former featuring another appearance from Jarboe, along with members of Akron/Family), a windblown alt country-esque ballad with Karen O on vocals (“Song for a Warrior”), a minute-and-a-half long near-spoken word vignette (“The Wolf”), a weird noise interlude (“93 Ave. B Blues”), a faintly ominous acoustic piece that sounds a lot like Gira’s Angels of Light project (“The Daughter Brings the Water”), and nine minutes of tribal percussive portent featuring the refrain “Your life is in my hands” (“The Avatar”).

This all makes for an album of radically different parts — and yet somehow they fit together perfectly to make an unconventional but perfectly coherent work of art. It takes a couple of listens to absorb all of The Seer, which is probably asking a lot of the average listener in this short-attention-span era of ours. But boy, is it worth it.

Make no mistake: The Seer certainly not easy listening. But then, art was never meant to be easy. Ultimately, this album feels like an achievement, a record with a coherent artistic vision and the ambition to pull it off. (It also makes a lot of contemporary Brooklyn-kids-noodling-with-synths music look very silly indeed.) If you devote a couple of hours to appreciating this album like you might appreciate, say, a novel or a film — by sitting down, listening, paying attention, and experiencing — it’ll prove very rewarding indeed.