Album Reviews

To Be Kind – Swans (2014)

Final Rating: 9.7/10

What does it mean to be kind? What is moral correctness? What is good? You see the distraught child on the front of Swans’ newest release and you see anything but joy. On top of a food-stained brown is a crying infant. Inside the package is a double disc two hour trip from Swans: The same band that brought you delightful releases like Filth, Greed and The Seer. Then again, sarcasm aside, Swans’ mastermind Michael Gira did bring us truly stunning tracks like The Sound and God Damn The Sun. Maybe To Be Kind will be a full album of beauty and one without noise?

Oh, who are we kidding? To Be Kind is yet another dive into the bottom of the human psyche as per Swans usual, and it is one of their best trips down the path of human behavior yet (which is outstanding, considering this is their thirteenth album in their three decades of being a band). When the band reunited and released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, we were given a nice preview of how things may be. With 2012’s The Seer, another two hour album, we were left a complete genocide of sound on our doorsteps, and boy was it an excellent destruction of conventional music. It was so good that it seemed nearly impossible to top. The only way The Seer may have been bested is if Swans examined how isolating that album was and attached real human experience to the calamity. Well, Gira tried his best and To Be Kind does just that. It is an album far easier to listen to, but it is still an onslaught of panic. While The Seer took its time creating nightmarish atmospheres before each song would begin (with the title track being over half an hour long and containing mostly a buildup to the end of the song), To Be Kind hops right in with songs that are oddly funky and driven. To Be Kind has a half hour journey as well (Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouveture) but it is a combination of two songs that compliment one another as a yin and yang of misery that starts off right away.

There isn’t any beating around the bush here. Gira finds our flaws and mistakes, grabs our heads and rubs our noses in what we have done. We are given uncomfortable avant-garde melodies and resonating ambient thought processes. Either way, we’re either dwelling or arguing. Gira’s original rendition of the song Oxygen was a live staple with just him and his acoustic guitar playing a hypnotic ballad about survival. On To Be Kind, Oxygen is an off-the-walls splatter of music that has no resemblance to the original song apart from the word oxygen. His old dreams have shattered, and he is left with this song that has to scream to the masses to get its point across since no one listened before. Much of the album sounds like a shout amidst common people, really. Single A Little God In My Hands is an upbeat song that sounds innocent at first but is full of Swans good-old-fashioned experimentalism as it catches us off guard.

The entire album feels like Swans hiding in the city while on the brink of losing its spirit and soul as it fights with itself and all of us to remember who it is. That battle within itself is a major reason why this album is so phenomenal.The song Some Things We Do starts off as a normal list of what emotions people experience, and then the song takes a trip down into hell with the same monotone vocals trying to stick to what they believe in. The song ends with the repeating line “we love” as if it were the biggest mistake humans have ever made. In fact, love is the very first word on the album in the introductory song Screen Shot: One of which also feels like a list of human qualities being dished out. It is this struggle with compassion that Gira faces throughout the album; an album that is soaked in dirt and cynicism. Maybe Gira doesn’t know what kindness is and he will never find out despite his two hour brain storm?

Every softer sounding song (Just A Little Boy [For Chester Burnett], To Be Kind, Kirsten Supine and more) gets knocked out by the fist of reality. Every uplifting song (A Little God In My Hands, She Loves Us!, Oxygen) is only happy because they would lose their sanity without some false self promise. Every other song has accepted their fate of misery, including the opening of Bring The Sun that gets engulfed by the oncoming storm. The skull shattering percussion leads the album on like a general sending their army into war. The fighting instruments quarrel over the sad fact that they are both in the same trapped predicament and they have no easier way of dealing with their tortures. Every sound, timbre, melody and line is full of dread and epiphany.

To Be Kind is a two hour experimental outlook on life and the inner self. It is one that wishes for happiness but never ultimately finds it. It is a very hyper realistic take on philosophical morality and human behavior. It asks why we attach ourselves to certain aspects of our being while replicating our desire for safety through damning music. Perhaps Gira’s answer on what it means to be kind is accepting the incoming horrors of life with the mindset that we know these burdens exist. Maybe it is the telling of truths to ourselves that is kind. Maybe it is the isolating of our fantasies, like love and idolizing, that reminds us of who we truly are deep down and not who we aspire to be like. If coming up with a message for this two hour cinematic album isn’t your fancy, then surely an escape from reality for that duration is. To Be Kind is not just one of Swans’ best albums, but it is one of the best examples of noise to have come out in a very long time, because it does more than orchestrate noise as a musical outsource: It encapsulates the struggles we face every day as humans into a double disc release of mantras and anguish.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.