Once, seemingly in another lifetime, Michael Gira meted out punishment to himself and his fans like no one else has before or since. In performance, he and his band, Swans, were so loud, the music — played at a crawl, so slow it appeared frozen in time and space — bludgeoned the eardrums and made intestines vibrate.
But it was Gira’s voice, which thundered and howled over this sonic sludge, that delivered the real pain. In the song “A Hanging,” he prayed, “Dear God in heaven/I will hang for you.” And in “Coward,” he commanded a lover to “Put your knife in me/and walk away.” (Both songs appear on Swans’ divine and submissive 1986 masterpiece, Holy Money.)
Gira was a pop-culture original. A romantic literary outlaw spiritually descended from Celine and Genet, he wrote with the feverish hand of a condemned man — his songs evoking images of foreign prisons, public castration, slaves being raped.
Gira grounded Swans, which gradually replaced their early monochrome harshness with Technicolor songs of love and salvation, with 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind studio finale. It seemed Gira had pushed the thematic limits of fleshly humiliation and agitated mysticism as far as they could go. Or did he?
The Angels of Light, a group Gira launched the following year, shows him continuing his unyieldingly personal journey to the end of the night.
How I Loved You is the new band’s second album (New Mother, released in 1999, was the first). It begins quietly with a beautiful power ballad, “Evangeline,” and ends with “Two Women,” in which Gira’s narrator promises an idealized mother figure he will “kneel naked upon the burning coals … /If you come for me.”
Gira’s mother, whose portrait is on the cover, is clearly the object of scorn and devotion on How I Loved You. (Gira’s father, who is pictured on the back cover, apparently plays little role here.)
She appears again in “Song for Nico,” where Gira sings, “You are the reason I’ve stayed on this earth/Mother, sing me into my birth.”
Gira turns his attention to other women (or, maybe not?) in “New York Girls.” The song drones along a flat line created by organ, timpani and layers of acoustic guitars before it all breaks down into the kind of exquisite chaos and terrible beauty that John Cale brought to the Velvet Underground. When Gira, his voice now dreamy and numb, sings “New York girls/I’ll worship what you are/New York girls/How cruel and pure you are,” Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen (two artists who have also tracked their souls as they inch their way out of the body) come to mind.
That’s heavenly company for Michael Gira’s Angels, to be sure. How I Loved You is a whisper, a rant and a remembrance: It seeks answers to questions most of us would never dare to ask.
File it under uneasy listening.
E-mail Walter Wasacz at firstname.lastname@example.org.