Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Swans - White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

My first encounter with the Swans was hearing Time is Money on Peel, a track with which I became briefly obsessed. It suggested a New York version of Test Dept channelling Whitehouse, an impression which I guess might be considered fairly perceptive given Michael Gira citing the influence of Whitehouse in one of the music papers a little later. Naturally I owned everything I'd been able to find within the space of another month - Filth, Greed, Cop and a stack of twelves. I'd initially experienced some shock at just how slow that material was after the moderately jaunty Time is Money, but I got over it and played those records to death, fascinated by how such a racket could ingrain itself in my mind's ear so profoundly. Of course, it was more than just the noise. It was also the atmosphere, dark and genuinely unsettling without any of the usual pantomime by which music artists tend to summon a bad vibe. I'd been horrified by Whitehouse the first time I heard them, but the Swans seemed to go much further, much deeper, inverting William Bennett's psychotic abuse as something more reflective, closer to self-harm.

Then came Children of God which wasn't actually very good, so poor in fact, that ownership of the related Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single - another one of those Joy Division covers which improves on the original - means there's no point owning the album given that Our Love Lies is on the b-side, that being the only decent track.

So that was the point at which I drifted away. I didn't hear anything about The Burning World or White Light which made me want to listen to them. They're very good, I was told a couple of times, but I'd already lost interest. The hypothetical Swans record full of jangly songs sounded like it would be about as much use as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition; and yet, there I was in Rough Trade in Covent Garden in 1992, and I hadn't bought a record for a while, and the only thing which seemed worth a tickle was Love of Life, and how bad could it be? Curiosity got the better of me.

I got home, slapped it on the Dansette, and was startled to find that the Swans had turned into Big Country while I'd been looking the other way. It sounded nothing like their previous work, and yet had the same grinding quality, the same pensive intensity combined with an unfamiliar, more positive current, like golden rays of sunshine giving contrast to the shadows 'n' shit. I loved it immediately, and then bought nothing further because everyone had stopped making records - or vinyls as tosspots call them these days. Ed Pinsent slipped me a copy of the Swans Are Dead double CD when someone sent it to the Sound Projector for review, but it was clear that something had gone wrong. Swans had devolved to a slow jangly mess, the sleigh bell heavy soundtrack to one of those BBC Christmas idents with kids dressed as snowmen ice-skating around a giant Christmas pudding shaped like the number two, except in this case with the addition of John Kerry reading a speech about disappointment. I still dig out Swans Are Dead from time to time, and it continues to leave me unmoved.

Eventually it occurred to me that maybe I'd missed out with The Burning World and White Light, given that Love of Life had become one of my favourite records of all time. I found The Burning World on Discogs, which happily coincided with a vinyl reissue of this one; because I have all of the others on vinyl so that's how I'd like to keep it, if it's all the same to you.

The Burning World came as a shock, roughly being the Swans as the Dubliners doing songs with choruses and everything, and even that cheeky cover of Nice Legs, Shame About the Face. It's not amazing, but it pisses all over Children of God, and Can't Find My Way Home is pretty powerful.

Oddly, considering how it forms the jam in a sandwich of two distinctly song-orientated albums, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity somehow sounds like the intermediary stage between Children of God and The Burning World.

It's okay. I'll get to the point soon. I'm even starting to bore myself.

Technically speaking, I've waited twenty-one years to hear this record, and most of that time has been characterised by people telling me how much I've missed out; but then I'm referring to Swans fans here, and the worst aspect of anything will always be its stupid fucking fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this band seem to have attracted an unusually joyless bunch of pillocks with not a chuckle muscle to share betwixt the entire sorry bunch. I'm sure you will have encountered one or two as they wend their wanky way to some yawnsome retrospective at the Barbican, fresh from sitting alone and frowning in an empty room whilst clutching a single rose. Did you see that piece on Derek Bailey in The Wire last month?

No, I fucking didnae.

Anyway, I play White Light from the Mouth of Infinity over and over and, month after month, it just won't stop sounding like the long, slow BBC jingle of an unusually depressing Christmas.

Love Will Save You eventually begins to resemble something half decent, suggesting the old Swans magic I remember, and Failure is okay, and some of the others seem all right; but contrast this with the direct celestial communication from God himself which was Love of Life, and it turns out that this was just another one of those intermediary records all along.

So now I know.

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