The Renaissance was just too great a burden for the Baroque painters, the generation of artists that followed in its wake. In comparison to the Michelangelos, the Verrocchios, and the Leonardos, their work looks cramped, paranoid, and decadent. But what can you do when you’re working in the shadow of legend? Worse, what if you created that legend yourself?
It’s the situation Michael Gira finds himself in now, after creating the template for Goth music as we know it with the seminal ’80s band Swans. He tweaked the template in the late ’80s to admit a strangely appropriate element of beauty, then finally moved on in 1999 to a project committed to more positive themes, the Angels of Light. Swans are an "important" band. They’re not much fun to listen to — sludgy, repetitive metal with lyrics about police brutality, rape, and other similarly grotesque and unthinkable themes. But, contextually speaking, they were a breakthrough. Their "importance" lay in their willingness to sludge through shit, to lick filthy sidewalks, to grit their teeth until they broke them.
New York City was in bad shape in the early ’80s. No one knew where all the money had gone, the cops couldn’t keep up with the crime, and Reaganomics exacerbated the wedge between the city’s rich and poor — the uptown and downtown. Swans spoke to the moment like perhaps no other New York band could. Except maybe Sonic Youth, the angel to Swans’ devil.
Brutal/transcendent. Negative/positive. For a moment there, they were almost the same thing.
So now, how to remain vital? How to make sense to a new New York? A New York that galloped through the mayoralty of Giuliani on cleaner streets, on decreased crime statistics, with more police to protect it. The rich-poor divide expanded even more, but who cared? The economy was great! The elegance of Sonic Youth is a gift that seems strangely unappreciated by contemporary audiences. To retain a signature sound, yet always change, and always remain relevant is an almost impossible challenge. ’90s prosperity was the sun setting on Swans. Hence Angels of Light and this, their third album, Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home. The M.O. has changed significantly. Gira describes this album as "made with LOVE" and done "with purity of intent." Impulsively, you embed tongue in cheek. Don’t. He’s dead serious, and it’s not without a certain sadness and sense of pity that I report this album is truly excruciating.
Most of this could pass as some sort of baroque version of Nine Inch Nails, an overly pretentious, high-art mistake. There’s Gira’s singing, which wanders into Billy Corgan-like, sensitive-guy territory. There’s "Kosinsky," which could easily be Pearl Jam or Soul Coughing, even when it surprisingly breaks into Gira’s version of Irish music. There’s "What You Were," a long five minutes of Gira crooning over a stark arrangement of a twinkling piano, a softly strummed acoustic guitar and some ethereal droning.
To Gira’s credit, there are moments of lyrical excellence, particularly "Nations," which paints the portrait of either a paternalistic ruler or a ruling parent. Knowing Gira, probably some horribly mutant combination. But framed in this way, placed in such an ornate context, everything comes across as sounding much too precious. Still, if you can’t bear the idea of a Michael Gira who has exceeded his prime, consider this: Times are finally bad again in New York. And, looking at Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to drastically cut the city’s services and workforce, they’re only getting worse.