leaving meaning. is the album for end times we deserve in 2019. At a juncture where humanity is facing the realistic threat of extinction due to our own apathy around climate change, Swans’ 15th studio album foresees the human condition dissipating from history in an ethereal, beautiful and occasionally brutal swan song.
With a largely new ensemble of musicians surrounding mainstay Michael Gira, the post-rock band turns away from the loud catharsis marked by their classic albums this decade The Seer and To Be Kind. This new sound employs diverse artists such as the piano-led meandering of The Necks on the record’s longest numbers, The Nub and the title track. Elsewhere, otherworldly electronic textures are provided by experimental producer Ben Frost, who offers less in the way of his solo records’ white noise tantrums, instead dressing the songs in some spectacular synthetic drones and gradual builds.
In his recent interview with X-Press, Gira asserted leaving meaning. was by no means a concept album, but noted that he found himself “preoccupied with the notion of dissolving” and this experience is certainly a recurring theme. If not a concept record in its storytelling architecture, the 90-minute double LP leaves little doubt as to where Gira’s head is at.
The first half is marked by a long, slow build. “How is it true that we even exist?” he asks on the serene, first song proper, Annaline. Two tracks later on Amnesia, our lack of leadership on the world stage is under the microscope: “The President’s mouth is a whore/ When there’s murder, the audience roars/ There’s no room left here for the strong/ And everything human’s necessarily wrong.” A reworking of the more industrial version from 1992’s Love of Life, here in a more ethereal incarnation it’s not so much a political statement as one about natural selection pondering the end of humankind.
On the title track he soaks our end of days in more religious imagery. “Glorious… No one, no us!” he preaches, before it all blows up on the album’s centrepiece, Sunfucker, which ends the first half. “Why am I on this earth?” he cries to a backing of screeching choirs and synths in one of the record’s most difficult – but rewarding – listens.
leaving meaning.‘s second half plays out more like judgement day itself, and the inevitable aftermath. “The angels are calling,” he intones on The Nub. First single It’s Coming It’s Real is next, and if its title doesn’t give away Gira’s meaning, the lyrics certainly do: “There’s nowhere to run to… How many more years? How much time is there left?”
In many ways It’s Coming Its Real would have made a perfect endpoint. Nonetheless the more upbeat trio of songs that bring this remarkable journey to a close mark a welcome change in both pace and style. What Is This? in particular is practically a pop song for Swans; you’d even be forgiven for thinking it was a Flaming Lips cover, from its title to the jovial orchestration and eventual release. “Where are you?/ What can you do to prove you exist?/ Oh, what is this?/ Who is this singing that which no longer exists?” asks Gira with nothing short of an upbeat and triumphant disposition. “Nothing can stop us from becoming nothing now!” It’d be emo if he didn’t sound so damn impressed at the outcome.
This leaves the heavily psychedelic My Phantom Limb to round out proceedings. “Let’s celebrate the disappearing mind,” Gira sings as he rises from the ashes, like a phoenix before it flies on into the afterlife. Then, with one grand, final march into the darkness, everything suddenly dissolves, just as he foresaw it.