Michael Gira created Young God Records in 1990 to house the intensely avant-garde noise sessions of his band Swans. Seventeen years later, the noise has died down a little, with the label now featuring some of the more prominent experimental folk artists, such as Akron/Family (which now provides the basic backing tracks for Gira in Angels of Light) and Devendra Banhart. Angels of Light began in 1998, only a year after Swans’ disbandment, Gira seemingly fed-up with the limitations of noise. Since that band’s 1999 debut, New Mother, he has alternated between American folk and primal sounds and Cohen-esque ’60s pop. We Are Him, Angel of Light’s sixth album (including a 2005 double album with Akron/Family), is Gira’s most successful attempt to tie these two influences together.
But this is not a happy album. Even on the most upbeat track, “Sunflower’s Here to Stay,” which features a full horn section and Mamas and the Papas-type background vocals, Gira sings, “The world’s getting smaller still/ But Sunflower can’t be killed/ And Sunflower’s here because/ the world fits between his jaws.” The blistering opener, “Black River Song,” overwhelms like a swiftly flowing river of deep-earth mud, a recurring image on We Are Him. Akron/Family member Dana Janssen’s cymbals and snare are quake-inducing, and former Swans member and current REM drummer Bill Rieflin’s single-note bass lays down the portentous repetition that characterizes the song-structure of much of the album. The chorus of mixed male and female vocals is howling and harrowing: “Fading/ glowing/ breathing/ flowing.”
The electric blues tracks are the strongest here, as in the fantastic “My Brother’s Man,” where Gira screams, wails, and laments in his strangely deep voice, or in “The Visitor,” which recalls the Silver Jews. Pop elements provide needed respites from the doom of the bass and guitar, but they might be spread a little too thin. Too many of the songs, though, are acoustic and country exercises that don’t have the lyrical punch to come off successfully. The bluegrass and fiddle melodies of “Good Bye Mary Lou” are ruined by lines like “Choke yourself on ancient meat/ Mary Lou, fuck you.” And not all of the repetition is powerful. The title track repeats the two-second phrase, “We are him/ In the sun,” twenty times to close out the song. The songwriting is simply the biggest flaw of We Are Him, and in an album so reliant upon the vocal performance, it’s a flaw that’s too hard to ignore.