I'm not ready.
I've been listening to this album nearly non-stop since its arrival, and I still don't feel like I know it well enough to do a decent review. I remember pre-To Be Kind Kyle. He thought to himself "I'm such a Swans fan. I've listened to everything they put out numerous times and their new album is going to be so immediate since I'm such an elite fan".
The first listen of To Be Kind was nearly as confusing as my first introduction to Swans with 2012's The Seer. It was overwhelmingly simple and overwhelmingly complex all at the same time, and it is 2 hours long. Absorbing a two-hour album is difficult. I listened while working, while driving, while working out, while cooking. I have only had one opportunity to sit down, do nothing else, and focus on the album... and I only lasted an hour and a half before I got busy with something else.
However, I have slowly absorbed this album over the course of two weeks and I have some first impressions I would like to share.
First, Michael Gira sounds strange on this album. At times, he is wailing "I'm just a little boy", followed by humiliating laughter, at others, he sounds like he is actually in a good mood. Considering he's endured 30 years of no one listening to his music, and then suddenly being the band leader of the country's most popular experimental rock band and finally being able to support himself adequately through his music, I'm sure he is in a better mood than usual. It is still kind of strange hearing the playful lilt of "A Little God in My Hands" and the funk of "Oxygen" when frustration, pain, and power have been the band's M.O. for the past three decades.
Second, this album is all over the place. It features songs like "Kirsten Supine", which may have been taken directly off of Soundtracks for the Blind, "Bring the Sun", which may as well be a continuation of "The Seer" off of the album of the same name, and then there's "Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)". This song is the most off-putting song on the record, sounding unlike any other Swans song in their massive discography. It sounds like a slowly plodding western/blues track featuring a slide guitar from hell that would fit in perfectly in a David Lynch movie. The entire track is really creepy and uncomfortable, and until you've gotten used to the song's strange atmosphere, it's difficult to hear the song for what it really is. And what it really is is an excellent track, by the way.
Third, I've learned that I'm not a big krautrock fan. As in much of krautrock, To Be Kind features many songs where a certain groove is repeated endlessly. If you've got one chord slammed over and over for 30 minutes, or pure noise screaming out of my speakers for 15 minutes, I will call your album a masterpiece. Playing an easily danceable, funky bass riff for 8 minutes however, turns my brain off and I get bored too easily. Many people are shouting this album's praises for taking what The Seer did and improving on it with riffs that hold your attention for the duration of the song, but I much prefer songs like "Bring the Sun", where one chord is played repeatedly until you emerge on the other side into a blissful atmosphere with ambient eastern vibes. Thankfully, this album has plenty of both, and I am slowly getting into the groovier tracks.
Finally, I would just like to talk about "Kirsten Supine". This track is astonishing. It has a dreamy, ethereal feel to it, and Gira's baritone is balanced by a woman's whispery voice and bright xylophone. Hypnotic slide guitar pokes it head out in the background and as the track gains momentum with Gira singing "I will let it go, I won't let it go, I can't let it go", the song is punctuated with a driving heart beat propelling the listener forward, and for 4 minutes, we are left waiting for what is coming next. The track slowly builds and shifts from anticipation to anxiety until it ends abruptly; only echoes remaining of the cacophony the listener was subjected to. This track is a powerful illustration of being faced with death, simultaneously terrified and fearless, looking it dead in the eye, and giving it the finger. It is so good.
Shit, I wrote a lot. If you're still here, you owe it to yourself to check this album out. Even if you are familiar with Swans, it is unlike any other album you've ever heard. I wish I could do the album justice in a review, but it's only been two weeks, and I'm certain I won't fully understand everything going on in this thing for a little while longer. That is the beauty of this record. It is massive, dense, unique, and complex.
It is Swans.