To Be Kind
Michael Gira wants you to feel numb, but he doesn’t want to do the numbing for you. What you bring to his masterpiece To Be Kind is all on you.
If you don’t have any prior reference to Swans or its principle raving lunatic Michael Gira, you’re at a privileged vantage point. You’re just the clean slate that To Be Kind beckons. What you do need, however, is a quiet, preferably solitary space and two hours of free time. Yes it’s that long, 121 minutes to be exact. The hulking mass that sits before you is much more formidable than the 30-some years of a catalogue behind it.
If you’re sentient during this listen, at first you may grip your seat in fear of the madman spewing nonsense into your ear, but the accompaniment will grip you right back. As you lean in to listen to the quieter moments, especially in the beginning of this triple LP, you won’t notice that you’ve leaned in too far until it’s too late. That’s when the music takes you. This is apparent from the first moments of the opener Screen Shot, that slinks outward to meet you with a bassy flutter then crescendos into full-on Jack Torrence limping in the hedge maze, yelling for Danny mode. You may be disoriented after just the first track, but if you’ve begun to follow Gira’s instructions you’ll relax and shed your reluctance towards it.
Many of the lyrical themes seem to grope at the sum total of human experience and then suggest it’s all disposable. In Screen Shot, it’s the nos: “No need, no hate, no will, no speech. No dream, no sleep, no suffering.” Then it’s the action words in Some Things We Do: “We betray, we serve, we regret, we learn. With tooth, and claw, we touch, we teach.” Gira wants you to forget those things and live right now on top of the upgraded monkey substrate that’s always been you. It’s a return to that pure, in the moment, blissful being that you’ve so far been able to keep at bay with your day job and grocery list.
Sonically, there’s no shortage of corners to turn in this record. When the torrent of incoherent French and Spanish being hurled out you at the end of Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Overture becomes too much, Some Things We Do will lull you back into the fold with whisper-soft diction and tripping, plucky strings. All of the build ups, layering and crescendos throughout the LP give way to a few straight forward tracks like the noisily limping A Little God in My Hands and Oxygen, which desperately wants to be a rock song but instead churns upon an uneven spindle.
Despite the above foreboding, this music is incredibly accessible. You’re just never going posses it like you do your favorite t-shirt. It’s more like a straight-jacket that’s easy to get on and even easier to get lost in, but it’s so damn comfortable and you stopped caring what you look like in it a long time ago.
Try on the straight jacket.