Album Reviews

Swans – The Beggar

(Young God/Mute) UK release date: 23 June 2023

Sinister bass grooves, slave-gallery drums and portentous bleakness: Michael Gira and co are back

Swans - The Beggar People used to say “Swans can break a man’s ear with just one beat of a drum”. At their inception, Michael Gira’s band of less-than-merry men were known for their sonic brutality, especially live, where many an exciting new career as a tinnitus-sufferer began. The addition of singer/keyboardist Jarboe heralded a new melodic sensibility, but the underlying aggression remained, a misanthropic sonic gall hidden below the sweetly tuneful surface. When the band reformed in 2010, after 13 years of silence, their sound was a little different, more spacious and subtle. A Swans album was still intense, but it was more often the intensity of a cold unwavering stare than of a spittle-flecked harangue.

The Beggar, their 16th studio album, makes good use of the quietly ardent tone, and whilst listening is intentionally oppressive, it’s like the insidious continual whisper of conscience rather than the brimstone sermon, and even when songs reach a clangorous attack they tend to build frog-boilingly slowly from hushed beginnings.

This is the case from the very outset, The Parasite opening with six chilly, spare guitar notes which sound like the start of Ennio Morricone‘s theme to a new Dollars film set in purgatory, before building to a stentorian drone to leave us eight and a half minutes later trapped in a church organ with some wasps – and if you think eight and a half minutes is exhaustingly long for a track, then strap in. Michael Is Done begins with barely voiced moth-wing string flutters and an oddly sprightly nursery rhyme melody before swelling slowly towards the sudden eruption of a Phil Spector wall of sound, complete with rattled tambourine and girl-band backing vocals. Incidentally, the Michael in question might be the apocalyptically battling archangel, rather than the lyricist, but regardless, “He’s the hate in the love […] his words are burnt meat” seems to sum up the Gira aesthetic.

Even when tracks start off imposing, they tend to get even bigger and darker. Take the title track, which grows from a sinister bass groove to relentless slave-galley drums, but Ebbing takes the bombastic biscuit and, despite its name, swells and waxes a folky little vocal melody to a crushing crescendo: this is the soundtrack to a short alternative version of The Wicker Man where the locals just decide to sacrifice themselves and the entire island ends up in flames.

Essentially, The Beggar has two flavours, gliding between sweet and sour, heavenly and harrowing, or – to borrow from the first two tracks’ titles – paradise and parasite. Variations of these are mixed and swirled on the confusingly named The Beggar Lover (Three) for a shade under 44 minutes. Such is the density of this fascinating collage that it would take an entire review of its own to cover, but in lieu of a map, here is a list of notable landmarks: a paranoid miasma of strings, like a particularly fretful Ligeti; sinisterly sepulchral tubular bells; a smooth voice-over actor intoning lines like “Its appetite is endless and will never be filled”, as if on a 1990s guide to setting up your expensive stereo in hell; a percussive flurry, like summer rain heard from inside a cello; a lead-footed industrial rhythm paired with luxuriant siren vocals; disconnected robot phonemes strangely reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook; sub-aquatic trip-hop; a timpani duel; a kid singing playground classic This Old Man and totally fucking it up.

For all their power, sometimes Swans’ portentous bleakness can become a bit, you know, silly. It’s hard not to giggle when a zombie-Leonard Cohen croak repeats “come to me, feed on me” for 45 seconds straight. There are also times, such as the ’60s garage chug of Los Angeles: City Of Death, or the stately chord progression and gospeloid choir of No More Of This, that edge towards a safe rock stodge, like Spiritualized’s blackened goth cousins. Some might wish for more of the pounding drums and hellish vocals of old, others might hope for more of the experimental blasted patchwork of The Beggar Lover (Three), but the album succeeds best through its unwieldy, unmanageable length. They say Swans can break a man’s spirit with just two hours of unstinting grimness.

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More on Swans
Swans – The Beggar
Swans – Children Of God
Swans – Leaving Meaning
Swans @ Electric Brixton, London
Swans – To Be Kind