A sizable portion of Swans‘ fans will likely contextualize The Glowing Man as the “last album release of Swans’ current incarnation,” revealed by Michael Gira along with the album’s formal announcement. But while this may be a crucial moment within the band’s brilliant reinvention, it mustn’t be allowed to monopolize the discourse surrounding Swans present and future existence. About a month-and-a-half before the announcement of The Glowing Man, former Gira protégé Larkin Grimm accused him of sexually assaulting her during recording sessions for her third album Parplar. The ensuing events presented more confusion than clarity: Gira and his wife Jennifer harshly condemned Grimm’s “slanderous lie,” claimed they could prove Grimm was lying before finally releasing a careful, curtailed statement backtracking Gira’s initial denial and labeling the incident as mutual and an “awkward mistake.” While Grimm responded with important points regarding what constitutes consent, she then released a song for sexual abuse survivors, a presumably well-intended decision marred by poor timing and alignment with Jennifer and Gira’s counter-accusations about Grimm’s mere desire for attention.
While neither side has commented on the incident sense, there’s now a clash between the band’s glorious swan song (a Swans-song, if you will) and Gira’s personal misdeeds, which entail either a misunderstanding of consent or taking advantage of a former friend. So for the second day in a row, we feel we must begin a review with a disclaimer of sorts. While fans must contemplate their personal stance on the art-artist relationship while listening to The Glowing Man – Swans and Gira are about as synonymous as a band and mastermind can be, a fact that will become truer after this “incarnation” of Swans is nearing its end – we’re left with the joyless task of both acknowledging this controversy and its ugly ramifications while attempting to retain some shred of “objectivity” (which is an illusion anyway) in talking about and dissecting this piece of music. Of course, it’s still crucial to understand the actual music that balances out this art-artist equation, though one cannot and should not excuse the other. That all being said, let’s dive into this album, as there is more than enough to say about it on its own.
The Glowing Man caps off a four album musical victory lap from a reinvigorated Gira, who convened a group of new and old collaborators at the turn of the decade to culminate Swans’ mission statement. A moderate re-introduction arrived with My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (2010), an admittedly great album that struggled with its reliance on ideas from Gira side-project Angels of Light. Yet, any early detractors scurried away once Swans unleashed The Seer (2012), easily one of the greatest albums of the decade and century thus far. Gira and crew’s experimental capabilities and limitless mindset led to a magnanimous statement of mood, sound and anti-structure that leveraged every aspect of Swans’ three-decade career in the most effective way possible. The Seer seemed inimitable, and To Be Kind (2014) proved that point correct – by demolishing Swans’ already desolate structure and rebuilding it in an adjacent, bastardized fashion.
While Swans’s music has always been a masterfully crafted bricolage of styles (drone, folk, ambient, post rock, noise rock, industrial, art rock, post punk, etc.), genre agnosticism isn’t the true strength of The Seer and TBK. Gira sought to extend song length beyond its logical conclusion and populate the gap with tension-obsessed songwriting. The way in which Swans carefully constructs its songs allows for gradual anxiety within the listener; a sort of building dread that ultimately begs for the band to release into the songs eventual climax. Gira and co. perfected the art of brutalist meditation, simultaneously tapping into primal emotions of rage, fear, lust, grief, and more while providing the listener the space to fully immerse and lose themselves in all of it. This produces numerous tracks that scoff at the twenty-minute mark and proceed to traverse whatever musical terrain it pleases, collecting into albums that are both wholly exhausting and rewarding. Unsurprisingly, The Glowing Man had high expectations to fulfill from the start, a fact that’s been elevated by its status as a grand finale (of sorts).
To begin simply, The Glowing Man will handily satiate Swans fans prior to the bands indefinite departure. Yet, the way in which the album matches its predecessors avoids duplication by acting as a natural progression of Gira’s newfound compositional goals. With both The Seer and TBK, tension was achieved via a sonic corkscrew, in that their songs spiraled into the listener before its unleash gored whatever remained. Additionally, both albums bore a persistent theme, with The Seer feeling overbearingly dark and TBK carrying a more terrestrial approach and looser thematic structure. Most importantly, both albums felt direct in their approach; the listener was made to feel the tension within and around them.
But in following with Gira’s goals of expansive sounds, The Glowing Man takes the final, logical leap, leading to a spiritually attuned experience that trades tension for turbulence. Instead of a tangible, plagued feeling, The Glowing Man is a meditative listen that jerks the listener as they soar while never removing them from high heights. The album’s opening pair, “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are precisely what it title suggests, with its swirls of ambiance, rigid strings, sweeping bells and thick, brooding guitars only darkening the skies and stoking the wind. It’s as eclectic and moving a journey that collects several disparate builds and climaxes rather than a single, intense crescendo. This subdued approach makes for a jarring listen; ebb-and-flow isn’t something Swans fans have become accustomed to, and it’s a marked shift in approach for openers from The Seer and TBK, which wasted relatively little time setting up listeners to be crushed. “Cloud of Unknowing” in particular could be mistaken at times for the kind of elongated instrumental catharsis that bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been channeling for years.
More surprising is how abundantly beautiful The Glowing Man is, presenting some of the band’s most striking moments in years. A wall of bright tremolos on “Cloud of Forgetting” is the first musical statement the album has to offer, and it evolves into a soft, vaguely psychedelic swirl of acoustic guitar and background pedal effects. The nod to Pink Floyd is apparent but puzzling, as it sets an entirely different opening tone than The Seer‘s eerie, plunking keys and TBK‘s sneering bass line. Gira himself seems to have taken on a newfound inner peace as well; his current crooning howl is a ways away from any of his frantic breakdowns on TBK. And though there are certainly moments of light to be found in The Seer and TBK (“Song For a Warrior” off of the former comes to mind), it’s difficult to imagine anything as sincerely sweet and just straight-up pretty as “When Will I Return?” fitting in on either of those albums.
Gira even seems to be enjoying himself on “Frankie M.,” with a playful, repetitious delivery of the track’s title dancing atop drawling guitar and light percussion. And again, the track provides another usage of turbulence over tension, as a swirling chorus of vocals builds to a chaotic dose of strings before subsiding and building once again. It’s an entrancing tactic that envelops the listener in the track; it’s as if the guitars crashing into the angelic chorus were always present and hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Swans should be commended for their ability to fulfill the listener with total subtlety rather than an immense climax. Songwriting-wise, The Glowing Man finds a way to feel both familiar to Swans’ current sound while fleshing out aspects of their style listeners weren’t aware they loved as much as they do.
But of course, Swans hasn’t totally lost their ability to craft crescendo-heavy songs, and the title-track is an excellent indicator of why their approach to tension works so well. “The Glowing Man” is truly the ultimate tension of the past three Swans albums, as it follows six tracks of turbulent beauty with a massive start-stop guitar riff and post-punk romp that erupts within bookends of dark, brooding ambiance. Swans couldn’t have bid adieu in a more perfect fashion, by accenting a highlight instance of what the The Glowing Man has to offer with a defining statement of what the band has become up to this point. And as Gira and crew play themselves off with heavenly acoustic closer “Finally, Peace,” it’s hard not to frown at the prospect of their two year album cycle coming to a close for the foreseeable future.
And yet, despite the undeniable quality of The Glowing Man, we must return to our initial disclaimer once more. There must now be a mental asterisk placed next to Gira and Swans, as their present and future output has been marred by the accusations Grimm levied against Gira. Swans has always been a love affair between Gira and his musical vision, something particularly true of the band’s reformation years. With this being the case, it’s imperative that Swans fans confront the concept of separating the artist and their art, especially within an increasingly progressive public view of sexual assault. And though the truth of the incident will likely remain inconclusive, it is not something that can or should be simply ignored. The following score represents an endorsement of The Glowing Man only, but truthfully, that may also be a morally dishonest position to take. This review in no way purports to know what actually happened between Grimm and Gira, or assert what verdict Swans fans should reach concerning his alleged actions. But while Gira is undoubtedly an exceptional musician, his own self-defense alludes to poor judgment and ignorance of consent at best, and potentially far worse. In a vacuum, The Glowing Man is a superb finale to one of the most artistically successful and “important” series of albums in modern music. Only time will tell if and how its reputation and memory holds up.
Swans’ The Glowing Man gets…