While listening to To Be Kind recently, I had some pretty odd thoughts about the dichotomous nature of beauty. I use the word “beauty” in its most meaningful form, rather than referring to some insipid, surface-deep concept promoted by fashion magazines and People’s Top 50 lists. I’m talking about awe-inspiring beauty, the kind you see in a wide shot of the English countryside cast in cloud shadow, or the Grand Canyon just a day’s drive east of LA. This is beauty that is both impressive and terrifying because its vastness is almost overwhelming and it has the capacity to swallow you up entirely.
To Be Kind is a beautiful album in that respect. It might not be the first word that springs to mind for casual listeners (though there really is no such thing as a casual listener for Swans), but a thrilling, raging heart drives the whole two hours of this album’s running time, and that is a beautiful thing.
At times, To Be Kind is terrifying, unsettling, and imposing. At other times, it glides with an unexpected serenity, never more so than on the gorgeous “Kirsten Supine.” At all times, its existence is nigh on miraculous. For a band to reunite after a 13-year hiatus and produce a two-hour monolith that is the highlight of its career is one thing, but with The Seer and now this, Swans has done it twice, 30 years after initially forming.
To Be Kind’s ten songs range in length from the five-minute eerie mantra of “Some Things We Do” to the stunning 34 minutes of “Bring The Sun/ Toussaint L’Ouverture.” The latter track in particular is a summary of everything this band does so well. That opening repetitive chord pummels the attention out of you before several minutes of shamanic chanting that build to a sensational mid-song guitar crescendo, one that could end up ranking as the most transcendental listening experience of the year.
For long-time fans of the band, some of these merits will not be a surprise. The ear-splitting volume of parts of To Be Kind is the kind of thing Swans has traded in for a long time, and to say that it comes naturally to Michael Gira and his crew is not to belittle the effect. The surprises here lie in the funky rhythms of “A Little God In His Hands” and “She Loves Us” and the relentlessly driving horns that propel “Oxygen” through a jaw-dropping eight minutes. Or how about Gira himself singing “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” with what sounds like genuine feeling on the concluding title track before the song collapses on itself?
Gira is utterly remarkable as a vocalist. He can sing with total menace at the lower end of his register, bark like a maniac at the top end, and invest his voice with the kind of feeling you just cannot fake. His best moments probably come on “Just A Little Boy” during which his longing chants of “I need love” are met with the bitter sound of canned laughter. He is the conductor behind this heaviest of orchestras, and his desire at this late stage of his career to push Swans this far is a testament to his creative energy.
To Be Kind is a towering work of art, the kind of utterly consuming listening experience that is best undertaken in one sitting, whether that be over one file, two CDs, or 3 LPs. The album is challenging only in the way that any work of art should be. Yes, it forces you to dig deeper into yourself to connect with its essence, but its rewards simply make so many other albums look so small in comparison.
To Be Kind might appear daunting at first, but let the album into your life and it will show you joy and anger and ecstasy and power. It delivers that multi-dimensional beauty that so many artists strive for but do not reach. This album is a titanic achievement.
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