We Are Blind And We’re Polluted

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Not that I’m about to buy another copy you understand but I am pleased indeed to see that Swans are reissuing the full ‘White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity’/’Love Of Life’ box set. It’s certainly something worth asking Santa for this year if you don’t have it. You get both full albums and an extra disc of other stuff that includes this long version of ‘Love Of Life’ which was always one of my favourite things they’d done. It’s pounding and percussive but unusually quick on its feet for Swans and adds the child’s vocal from ‘Identity’ over the extended section. I’m not sure exactly why that works but it does magnificently, something about the contrast between the child’s sweet voice and the epic quality of Gira’s words. To be honest I thought for quite a while that it was a ‘found’ recording of a little girl, turns out Gira wrote it and it’s a boy reading it. Either way, it’s just fantastic, and so it popped up early on the recent insomniacathon mix…

I wouldn’t be wrong, nor would I be the first, to say these records are where the current imperial version of Swans began. Sceptical as I was about the reactivation of the band, the first time I heard ‘My Father Will Guide Me…’ it was clear they were getting to something they’d tried but not somehow quite achieved before. A combination of the early record’s weight and power with the later one’s scope and grandeur. Gira isn’t a massive fan of this stuff himself it seems, previously chopping some of the favoured bits together and calling it ‘Various Failures’. Well, it’s not like we’d expect him to be the sort to go easy on himself is it? Not that it affected me either but it always annoyed me that he’d done that. White Light… is the better of the two records (more focussed I think, ‘Love Of Life’ seems to dissipate a bit although they clearly belong together) and probably the album that slowly, or finally, convinced me Swans were as good as their cheerleaders made out. You see, old and wise/creaky we may be here but we aren’t so old we remember Swans all that clearly in their earliest incarnation. They were a myth, a legend, an underground force of extremity, The record sleeves had a fierce, almost totalitarian minimalism about them and terrifying titles like ‘Raping A Slave’ and ‘Public Castration Is A Good Idea’. They apparently played at tremendous volume but were American and unlikely to turn up all that often playing the UK toilet circuit (although they did). We’re talking about the early/mid 80’s so you couldn’t just check them out on youtube or bandcamp or anything. Peel was definitely the only place you would hear them on the radio but the first memory I have of that is him playing their oddly straight version of of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and a expressing his disappointment that it didn’t sound more like, well, Swans. So despite not having much exposure to them Swans seemed too dark, too macho, too scary for my frail young mind. The weird major label folk record moment that arrived next changed that perception of them. Curious thing ‘The Burning World’, nobody seems to like it much but there’s a couple of great songs on there. ‘White Light…’ seemed to see them step back from the brink. There’s still a lot of acoustic songwriting type stuff but mixed with a different sense of structure and all kinds of more experimental ideas. The amazing artwork by Deryk Thomas was a compelling part of the appeal for me too, unknowable and darkly humourous it seems to suit the bands new approach, letting in light and mystery to Gira’s portentous ruminations. Just look at the title and tracklist – ‘Power and Sacrifice’, ‘Song For Dead Time’, ‘Will We Survive’, ‘Failure’, ‘Why Are We Alive?’. Not fluffy bunny’s picnic is it? More fluffy bunny’s head is in flames…

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From the perspective of almost 25 years later it no longer seems so long or so difficult because many of the things it contains have grown familiar, ‘Miracle Of Love’ is where I first heard that endless rolling crescendo of sound you hear in Godspeed and many of their lesser imitators. Also Swans albums have grown longer and more intense. If you’re coming to these records for the first time after hearing the most recent three then I guess it might sound a little thin or ill formed, my own fondness for them helps me overlook the weakness in these early versions of a since refined recipe. Also with hindsight ‘Children Of God’ had probably started some of the way down this path, but I hadn’t heard it at the time. I had heard World Of Skin which sort of lead to ‘The Burning World’ though. Different times. I mentioned the Joy Division cover earlier but I didn’t know about this though. No. Xiu Xiu + M. Gira covering Bowie + Queen. That’s right. An odd refusal to engage with Xiu Xiu’s clearly intriguing ouvre is probably to blame and I’m slightly ashamed to finally be doing so because of a collaboration on a somewhat silly cover version but, so it goes. (Xiu Xiu’s latest digital release Kling Klang features recordings of 999 vibrators attached to a copper sculpture) – Thank you to the wonderful Lawrence English for pointing out this gem.

 

Now I’m Breathing The Breath Of God
And The Cold Wind Cleans My Mind
And I’m Standing In A Ring Of Fire
And My Heart Is Made Of Light
And I Fly Across The Red Mountains
And My Hands Contain The Sky
And The Earth Rolls Away In Darkness
And I Ride A Piece Of Lightning
Killing Time
Killing Time

Now They Punish Our Imagination
And Corrupt Our Blood With Fear
And Infinity’s Beneath The Ocean
But Oblivion Sits Right Beside Me Here
So We Are Blind And We’re Polluted
And Each Breath Is Drunk With Tears
We’ll Drift Away Across Tomorrow
And We’ll Ride The Breath Of Nothing
Through The Years
Killing Time
Killing Time

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