Earbuddy’s writers discuss the new monster album from Swans — To Be Kind.
Young God Records, 2014
Welcome to Earbuddy’s first Roundtable Review. To explain, Earbuddy assembles three or more writers to discuss a new album with each writer giving his/her thoughts on the release and their own personal score. Then an average score is determined for the album overall. For our latest Roundtable, Earbuddy writers John Downey, Ryan Rogers, and Nick Krenn will be reviewing Swans’ new album To Be Kind.
Following 2012’s lengthy album, The Seer, Swans have returned with an even longer album, To Be Kind. Treated somewhat as an event due to its length and complexity, To Be Kind has been heralded as one of Swans’ best albums if not the best of their career. Two hours in length, lyrically ambiguous, and wholly experimental, To Be Kind is an album meant for the most adventurous listeners.
We’re kind of late to this one, and as To Be Kind has been out for well over a week—an eternity in Internet years—it has been celebrated, picked apart, deified, been called overrated, and given a one-paragraph review by Rolling Stone. Most of what could be said about it has already been said. It is a big album full of big songs that occupy a lot of space, but you can figure that out by reading the Wikipedia page. With that in mind, I feel it necessary to briefly discuss assumptions of quality as it pertains to long-form art.
In the review she wrote of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum focused less on the contents of the novel and more on its gargantuan length, suggesting that it is too big for its own good and that reading it is an impractical matter. To be fair, Infinite Jest is quite the doorstopper at 1,000+ pages (300 of which are footnotes, making it the rare book that requires two bookmarks), but it’s one thing to walk away disappointed from a lengthy book and another to say it sucks because reading it takes too much effort, and Schwarzbaum was put through the ringer for engaging in the latter. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Max Landis’s video arguing that Sion Sono’s Love Exposure “defaults” to being the greatest film of all time due to its engaging nature in spite of its 237 minutes. That’s certainly an achievement, and yeah, Love Exposure is pretty damn good, but Landis’s argument implies that a great, long film has more worth than a great, short film, and that’s not the best message to send.
What matters most, I’d argue, is that the art is as long as it needs to be. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At the End of the Lane is under 200 pages, and it doesn’t need to be a page longer than it is. Likewise, the monument to anxiety that is Swans’ To Be Kind is justified in its length. These ten songs feel like ten songs, not thirty songs smashed together in a jam session. This is carefully thought out drone rock that builds on itself. It is two hours long because it needs to be two hours long to convey its ideas and bigness. “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” needs to be 34 minutes long to get across its lunacy, and that it flows perfectly into the melancholic “Some Things We Do” is just one instance of how flawlessly paced the album is.
So, um, yeah, that’s what I’ve got to say about To Be Kind: a two-hour long rock album without filler that remains engaging in spite of its length. I won’t say this will be the best album you’ll hear all year, but this is easily the best I’ve heard so far in 2014.
John’s Score: 9.5
Ever since Swan’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the band has been trying to perfect the long-form progressive experimental rock sound that errs on the side of King Crimson and Yes. Swan’s last albumThe Seer is where they took a new proggy approach to their nihilistic apocalypse-beckoning art rock. On To Be Kind, John Congleton (who has produced for abouthalf of the indie rock world) mans the boards. To Be Kind was recorded in “the world’s largest residential studio complex” in my home state of Texas in town called Tornillo, which is 30 miles away from El Paso. The dry and eerie expanse of Texas is quite apparent in many parts of To Be Kind.
To Be Kind and The Seer work perfectly as sister records due to their lengths, musical stylings and their overall doom and gloom outlook on life. To Be Kind starts off grander and more fast-paced than The Seer with “Screenshot” and the track features a menacing hammer on/hammer off riff that rivals the two-note fury of “Mother of the World.” While The Seer had Karen O and Ben Frost on deck for additional instrumentation, To Be Kind has St. Vincent singing background on four of the major songs and Cold Specks’ guitarist Al Spx redeeming himself from his time recording with Moby last year on the rather lackluster Innocents.
Many might not have the bravery or fortitude to tackle To Be Kind in it’s full form. The album is really the perfect music for a desert highway that never seems to end. I had kind of weird and magical experience listening to the album while driving on a Louisiana highway when on the side of the road a dust devil formed and started whipping around just as “Screenshot” started to pick up speed (I want to believe that it was dark voodoo magic that caused the event).
Strangely enough, Swans crafted the closest thing they could ever call a single with “A Little God In My Hands” and the track plays around with jazzy Radiohead-inspired horns mixed with a foot-stomping fret-sliding riff. Near the middle of To Be Kind, the first make-or-break track of the album emerges and those who can’t handle the 30 minute tribute to the sun and New Orleans R&B giant Allen Toussaint probably won’t be revisiting the album for a while. But those who do manage the herculean task are rewarded with lead singer Michael Gira’s vision of how he would perform Led Zeppelin’s halfway freakout during “Whole Lotta Love” (except 12 times longer).
Ambitious albums like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun tend to be overly serious and uptight, but To Be Kind kind of laughs at that approach (literally and figuratively) and it makes the songs have kind of a loose and playful feel (never thought Swans would ever be described with those adjectives). If To Be Kind and The Seer are truly sister records, who knows if Gira and company will expand their two-hour art rock odysseys into a full blown trilogy; if so, I’m diving in headfirst without a single regret in my mind.
Ryan’s Score: 9.4
To be honest, my entire review could have just been a video clip from the film Scanners where a guy’s head explodes like a watermelon, just raining red brain matter onto everyone. Swans have BLOWN my mind, and boy, it feels good. Earbuddy planned to do a Roundtable for this album as soon as it was announced, and for good reason, The Seer made our 2012 Albums of the Year, but the album was an absolute MONSTER in terms of size and what was happening musically. I couldn’t wrap my head around it during its release, but other members of the staff loved it. While The Seer fell just shy of two hours in length, To Be Kind rolls slightly past that. Much like The Seer, this album is one that requires your time, and based on its raw aggression at times, I’d say the album DEMANDS your time.
Still, not everyone will GET this album, and by that, I mean two things. One, they will not purchase it for reasons like: it’s two damn long; Swans are creepy; who the hell are Swans? Two, they will not understand what’s going on in To Be Kind. I’m not even sure that I understand what is happening; however, The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano did an awesome review for the album and picked it apart in obsessive detail. Summary: To Be Kind is about life, death, fucking, fighting, breathing. Don’t think of ‘Kind’ from the title in referring to being gentle or nice. Think of ‘Kind’ in terms of mankind or any species. Swans’ main man Michael Gira takes us on a journey via a stream of thoughts that seem to stand on their own but also hold together in a cohesive thought. And while he’s delivering these lyrics, you might believe he’s fucking insane. One of my favorite lines comes from “She Loves Us” where Gira declares in a howling madman yell: “Your name is FUCK!”
Lyrics aside, the true beauty of To Be Kind is the immense detail of instrumentation. To Be Kind‘s concept can easily be construed as ambitious, but then when actually experiencing the long build-ups, the moments of absolute thundering mayhem, the softer comedowns, the monk-like chanting, the various odds and ends noises (was that a horse; was that a ref’s whistle?), you realize that all goals have been exceeded to the nth degree. And what’s most impressive is that Swans don’t sound like they’re trying to knock out one of the greatest albums of their career; it just sounds instinctual, as if this is all they know. Describing music, especially live events, as a religious experience when seeing a band like My Morning Jacket almost seems silly when comparing it to this album. To Be Kind is the soundtrack for starting a cult and teaching the ideas (however they’re interpreted) to its members. It’s a new kind of religious experience — one derived from an experimental rock playground. Are you ready to become a member? Are you ready to get a name tag that reads “FUCK”? Then you NEED to hear this album. It DEMANDS it!
Nick’s Score: 9.5
9.5 / 10