Graded on a Curve:
Swans,
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity

Michael Gira is the Evolving Man. Emerging from NYC’s No Wave movement in 1982, his band Swans’ early music was slow, grating, and unremittingly bleak, attracting sadists, masochists, noise addicts, head cases, nihilists, hate junkies, and people who put death at the top of their Christmas wish lists. Gira’s basic message was that human beings are scum who deserve whatever shitty hand they’re dealt.

But as the years passed, a funny thing happened; Swans took the musical brutality down a notch, and their songs took on what can only be described as a cathartic quality. Gira was evolving from a pillar of rage to a seeker on a quest for transcendence. No longer, or so it seemed, was Gira feeding his demons. He was, step by halting and tentative step, seeking to exorcize them.

Swans’ transformation is on full display on 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity. Gira sounds characteristically down in the mouth, and his lyrics still tilt towards the dark side, but the songs themselves aspire to–and there’s no other of way of putting it–the sublime. Aided by choral and orchestral arrangements, the songs on White Light from the Mouth of Infinity stand as guiding stars in Gira’s search for some pure light beyond the limits of plain sight.

The best of the songs on White Light from the Mouth of Infinity explode like supernovas above the abyss. The best of them is the ecstatic “Song for the Sun,” on which Gira defiantly sings, “I will survive my life” and delivers a rare positive sentiment in the form of “Let the sun come in.” Other highlights include the soaring “Will We Survive” and the fatalistic “Blind,” with its lines, “Don’t say a prayer for anyone/It doesn’t do any good.”

Other toppers include the Velvet Underground-tinged and heavily orchestrated “Why Are We Alive?”, the stately “The Most Unfortunately Lie” with its sound of children playing, and the mordant but lovely “Love Will Save You.” The titles of both “Better Than You” and “You Know Nothing” seem expressly designed to lower your self-esteem, but they’re misleading: the baby babble at the beginning of the former seems to symbolize rebirth, while on the latter Gira appears to be referring not to our IQ but to our inability to grasp the unknowable while still being vessels of glorious radiance: “Inside your body is a clear blue light, and your body was made from this.”

Less euphoria-inducing but nevertheless stellar tracks include “Power in Sacrifice” with its crushing guitars and humongous bottom, and the loping dirge “Failure,” on which Gira concedes he’s learned nothing except he’s fated to fail at the impossible tasks life has sent him (and aren’t we all). The guitars in “Miracle of Love” give it a high desert vibe, while the lyrics once again parse the transcendent; ”White light in the black sky,” sings Gira, “is a miracle of love.”

The only songs I have reservations about are the atmospheric “Song for Dead Time” and the très exotique “When She Breathes,” both of which are sung by off-and-on Swans collaborator Jarboe, her hushed warble is beguiling enough, but it’s too pretty in these settings and strike a discordant note on an otherwise cohesive LP. The spiritual journey is Gira’s, and like they say, no one else can walk the road to radiance for you.

Diehard fans, who seem to increase by day, describe Swan’s live shows in rapturous, even religious terms–less concerts than tent show revivals for converts to some strange new religion. I don’t buy into Gira as shaman, but seeker he is, and White Light from the Mouth of Infinity stands as a milepost in his never-ending quest for that pure light beyond the limits of plain sight.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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