There’s something of a stereotype when it comes to artists getting older. If they don’t break up, retire or generally fade away into side projects, the trend is usually that their output becomes less and less creative until eventually their albums seem more like bored cash grabs than artistic statements.
But when it comes to Michael Gira, that’s a load of horseshit.
Since the 1980s, Gira has been at the forefront of American experimentalism, whether with his primary outfit, Swans, or his softer side project, Angels of Light. A kind of musical Lars von Trier, Gira’s projects are aggressive, unsettling and seem to mine the most despicable aspects of humanity for inspiration — not to say that he doesn’t find incredible beauty in these morbid subjects.
Though Swans disbanded in the late ’90s, Gira revived the project in 2010, and has since been releasing some of the most impressive work of his long and storied career. “THIS IS NOT A REUNION,” Gira wrote on his website upon the announcement of Swans’ return. “It’s not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past. After five Angels of Light albums, I needed a way to move FORWARD, in a new direction, and it just so happens that revivifying the idea of Swans is allowing me to do that.”
He’s certainly kept his promise in that regard. The new Swans is a much more majestic unit than the raw, violent group Gira led in the ’80s and ’90s. Though still obsessed with themes of God, childhood and our own worst impulses, Swans now operates with a kind of sophisticated chemistry, with a large emphasis on group improvisation and rhythmic jamming. Songs sometimes stretch into the 30-minute range and often barely change chords, opting instead for the movement to come from the shape-shifting instrumentation and the group’s growing intensity.
It’s not the type of music you’d expect to hear from an artist who recently turned 60: confrontational, insanely dark, and anything but commercial. Yet the newest incarnation of the Swans sound has the kind of nuance that only comes with experience, and makes it all the more rewarding that Gira is continuing to make challenging music as he gets older. And
With their newest album, To Be Kind, out this month on Gira’s own Young God label, they’ve proven once again that age in no way needs to be synonymous with a lessening of creativity. The band will be making an appearance at the Bluebird on Sept. 2, and if their reputation holds true, it’ll be one of the most awe-inspiring shows of the year.
Sam Goldner is the music director at CU-Boulder’s Radio 1190. Email him at email@example.com.