If we do ever see an apocalypse, when the dust has settled and the few survivors gather up scraps to construct bars and living quarters — in that order — once they get the wiring down, this is the album that’ll play on the jukebox. Maybe the only album. Michael Gira’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, with the reassembled Swans, sounds gutted out. It’s an album that marries the buzzsaw abrasion of past Swans’ albums with the country-cum-death-blues feel of his work with Angels of Light. That’s an easy way to explain it, anyway.
This music, though, it’s almost anti-music in spots. In a good way. It strips away all the comforting structures we know and leaves us awash in harsh emotion. The standard rock ‘n’ roll tension release, that burst of cathartic energy, is no more here than a constant swelling, a white-noise frustration that grows and grows to just before the point of rupture, but never quite bursts. The nearly 10-minute opener, “No Words/No Thought,” is a jarring combination of not-quite-formless squall and a military-insistent beat. The combination of purpose and unbearable tension is volatile. The deathly waltz of “Jim” takes a similar tack, with a beat excruciatingly slow, the instruments grinding away, and Gira nearly cackling as he insists that we “ride your beautiful bitch to the ultimate sin.”
In other places, Gira tears down country music, from its articulate, clever brand of lonesome to a thin, miles-wide isolation. There’s no finding your way back to the one you love, no self-destructive wallowing in drink, just the lonesome pit in your gut and the blind lashing out to keep it that way. “Reeling the Liars In” and “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” (simutaneously the calmest and most unsettling track on the record) take this path, and the isolation, all consuming as it is, is also a nice counterpoint to the clustered-up vitriol of the other tracks. It’s also preps us for the rattling beauty of closer “Little Mouth,” where Gira’s voice is at its most bottomed out and arresting.
My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky takes on a sort rapture, maybe a rapture that works in reverse, where we burn it all down — there’s a lot of burning as violent cleansing on this record — and sink deeper to start again. It’s that feeling, of leaving it all behind, that makes this sound so exhilarating. There’s a freeing quality to this record, and Gira seems to be at his most creative, bringing Swans back together not to retread what he’s already done but to cut loose the reigns on his tamer Angels of Light work.
If there’s hope in a recognition scene — that moment in Greek tragedy where everyone knows they’re not getting out alive — if there’s freedom in embracing the end if only to begin again, then that is the bracing undercurrent of this record. “It’s 200 miles to the place where we begin,” Gira sings at one point, and his sluggish voice implies its a long way to go (probably on foot), but there’s the fainted hint of redemption in there, a slippery brand of salvation that hides behind all the darkness on this record.
Even with that glimmer, though, this disc is an awfully combative listen — this shit will push at you and push at you, and you have to be willing to take the hits. But if you push back a little, if you grit your teeth and plow through the storm as Gira’s music surrounds you in darkness, as it grinds away at your at every step, you’ll soon find yourself stumbling through his finest tour yet through the rubble of any and every musical genre he catches in his grasp.