A New Era Begins
Few bands have garnered the legacy, impact and critical acclaim that Swans have over nearly forty years. Even fewer have managed to consistently create intrigue with their releases over such an extended period of time. Where many are content to stay in their lane with a few shifts here and there, Swans have changed from No-Wave to Post-Rock and finally into something entirely unique. Their fourth album, Leaving Meaning, pushes them further along their own direction, while not greatly expanding on the ideas before. Instead, it rolls the emotions of those massive projects that preceded it into a closer, more intimate experiment.
Kicking off this journey is the one-two punch of “Hums” and “Annaline.” These two tracks don’t go very far to separate themselves, with “Hums” largely serving as an introduction to “Annaline,” but they do go a long way towards setting up the tone of the record. Both tracks are brighter and more lovely than nearly any Swans track of the past ten years, but there is an undertone of darkness. Something in the way the notes drone beneath the twinkling guitars, and the way Michael Gira drawls out the lyrics is ever so slightly unsettling.
The bulk of the record, which begins with “The Hanging Man,” is more reminiscent of records like The Glowing Man and To Be Kind. It centers around repetition and is noticeably darker than the previous two tracks. However, unlike its contemporaries from the aforementioned records, it refuses to build to a breaking point. Songs like “Just a Little Boy” or “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” would reach a maddening crescendo, and while “The Hanging Man” rises, it is more content to wallow in its darkness and craft an inescapable, sludgy atmosphere.
This continues over the next few songs, all of which are wonderful, but they lead into the insurmountable “Sunfucker,” which lords over the rest of the album as its absolute pinnacle. It relies on the same repetition as most tracks on the record, but it culminates in a delicious droning crescendo towards the center of the track. The crescendo breaks into a bouncing, rock section that carries the song towards its conclusion, but the excellent use of repetition and the varied layers set this track apart from the rest of the record.
Closing the record are two of the best Swans tracks in recent memory, “What is This” and “My Phantom Limb.” “What is This” is the biggest outlier on this record. It is a delightful, uplifting track, which is an unexpected turn for Swans, but they craft a lovely, dreamy atmosphere to wind down the record. Of course, they can’t leave you on too high of a note. It’s difficult to understand why “My Phantom Limb” closes out the record instead of “What is This,” considering the latter has a more powerful tonal shift. But, “My Phantom Limb” has the most to say of maybe any track on the record. With passages like “If there’s cancer in your blood/ it works its way through me too/ we’re all the same,” it’s clear that the track is focused on the interconnectedness of humanity, which does make for a fitting outro statement. But it’s still difficult to ignore the choice to end on this track, which results in the only notable misstep on Leaving Meaning.