Michael Gira / Swans – Is there Really a Mind?

Posted: 6 April 2022 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Young God Records – February 2022

For a good many years now, Michael Gira has been releasing limited-edition, hand-decorated CDs as stop-gaps and fundraisers, and many of these have offered skeletal previews of works in progress as part of the evolution of the next Swans album: indeed, some of these ‘demo’ CDs have served to raise funds towards the recording of the next Swans album. These hand-numbered, signed releases have become integral to the connection between the artist and the fans: while Gira may have long cultivated a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and ‘standoffish’, it’s become apparent, particularly since the post-millennial return of Swans that Gira has mellowed somewhat, but, more than anything, that he is truly appreciative of the continued support of a dedicated fanbase, and the effort that goes into these is apparent.

One friend of mine said he had stopped buying them because he wasn’t sure he felt the need for any more Gira solo acoustic demo discs, and it’s true that format in itself has become something of a standard: songs recorded solo by Gira with just acoustic guitar and voice, house in some permutation of woodstamp and hand-painted envelope, accompanied by liner notes and lyric sheets. But these aren’t just crappy CD-R efforts in a photocopied sleeve, but proper, lovingly-crafted artefacts that are more than simply about the music they contain, which may well explain the high prices they fetch on the secondhand market. But purely considering the music herein, to hear these demos while the songs are being developed is to gain an insight into not only the creative process, butt a glimpse of the future – or not.

Oftentimes, demos and outtakes are released as deluxe release bonus tracks or B-asides and the like, and one can compare the final version and see how it’s evolved, if at all; but to hear the demo before the song is finished means that the grand reveal when the album is released is an altogether different experience. Moreover, whole many artists’ demos don’t sounds radically different apart from having more fleshed-out arrangements and proper production, having been thrown together in a studio, these are raw, ragged sketches that are subsequently subject to vast revisions.

What with one thing and another, it’s taken me a while to get around to listening to Is there Really a Mind? It’s perhaps a hangover from the last few Swans albums, that were so long that even putting the disc in the player felt like an evening’s commitment. You can’t just leave, say, The Seer or To Be Kind rolling along as background music while you’re working, or think ‘I’ll just play half an hour of this while I’m cooking dinner’. This is, perhaps, the dichotomy of the album experience and the listening span of the modern listener, but then, concentrating long enough to listen to an album that lasts maybe forty-five minutes versus \an album that runs for the best part of two hours is an altogether different matter.

The compositions on Is there Really a Mind? feel more evolved than those on many of the previous demo discs – and a fair few of them are already pretty damn long. The opening triptych of ‘Paradise is Mine’; ‘The Beggar’; and ‘The Parasite’ runs for the best part of half an hour, with the shortest being barely shy of seven minutes, and they find Gira in his most drawling, droning, ominously spiritual mode. Lyrically, perhaps any shift is less obvious, with many of Gira’s longstanding themes being explored.

Across the ten songs on Is there Really a Mind? there’s a real sense of Gira building long, throbbing sounds that aren’t really riffs or motifs, and the three-chord repetitions that are his trademark have faded to even less overtly structured forms as he batters away at a single, indistinct chord that’s more of a drone than a tune, for the duration. It’s hard and harrowing, and while full arrangements will make an immense difference to how the songs actually work, these versions are like the darkest, bleakest country tunes, hewn from the bowels of hell – as if the evangelical elements of Children of God had been distilled by demons.

It feels like I’ve been listening to this all night, and still it’s only the third song, and truth be told, it is a slog and without the textures and layers of proper arrangements, it’s hard to imagine slapping this on to fill some time and air, ever.

It’s a measure of an album’s cheer level when a song entitled ‘Los Angeles City of Death’ is one of the more uplifting tunes. ‘Why Can’t I Have What I Want When I want It?’ isn’t a song demolishing the instant gratification of consumer culture, but another exploration of suppliance, dominance, and devourment, and it’s fair to say that whatever the musical progressions, Gira’s words remain focused on blood and bone and pain and the stuff that hurts.

Is there Really a Mind? may just be acoustic demos, but it’s immense.

'Is_There_Really_a_Mind '_cover

  1. […] Michael Gira / Swans – Is there Really a Mind? (via Michael Nosnibor / Aural Aggravation) […]

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