'Leaving Meaning' is Swans 15th studio album, the follow up to 2016's 'The Glowing Man,' written and produced by Michael Gira, featuring contributions from recent and former Swans, members of Angels of Light as well as guest artists Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, Ben Frost, The Necks, Baby Dee, and a Hawk and a Hacksaw. Being a double album (either on vinyl or CD) there is quite a bit of material here, and you can count on a variety of form- ambient, rock, folk, psychedelic, avant-garde, etc., but all distinctly SWANS, as there is nothing else like it. No compromises have been made, no short-cuts taken, and it flows effortlessly, as if everything Gira & Co. has done in the past has all led to this point in time.
Truth be told, I don't care for everything Swans have ever done. The first few releases I had no affinity for; too harsh, too brutal, too much. It wasn't until 'Children of God' that I really paid them any mind. Much of that was symptomatic of where my personal musical taste was at the time; more bright than dark, leaning toward the quirky, cleverly commercial rather than melancholy, dark, morose and malevolent. A personal crisis precipitated a radical shift of perspective in the late '80s for me, and I developed a strong affinity for dark music, ranging from dark ambient to goth-industrial, experimental and even noise. It's not hard to see how Swans music would enter my orbit and I'd develop an affinity for Gira and Jarboe songs, along with a myriad of others I thought to be kindred spirits. I can't say that I've kept up with every Swans release, and even with those I had there were tracks I really enjoyed, and others I didn't particularly care for. I can't really put a finger on what (to me) made a great Swans track (or album, for that matter) as some things just resonated with me, and others didn't. For example, I had a copy of 'The Seer' back in 2012, and didn't much care for it, so I gave it away. It's not like I didn't try to get into it; it just didn't resonate with me. Then there is 'Leaving Meaning' which I found riveting from the get-go. There is something so enticing, so entrancing, so beguiling about this album that it's a feeling difficult to put into words. To a degree, the album is like parts of albums that they've done before, and yet remarkably different as well. It's more of a perfection of the elements that makes Swans great than any comparison would be capable of. There is an undeniable essence of deep spirituality and ritual permeating the album's entirety, not something I'd consider particularly unusual for a latter-day Swans album, but with ‘Leaving Meaning’ it is so abundantly clear there can be no mistaking it for anything else.
Beginning with "Hums," a brief, mildly chaotic instrumental piece that tumbles out of the gate, 'Leaving Meaning' takes on a mystical quality with "Annaline," a slow song wrapped in ambience sung confessionally by Gira with plenty of western pathos. "The Hanging Man" begins the ritualistic aspect of the album with repetitive riff and percussion while Gira spins his evocative shamanic vocal web alternately intoning and shouting the lyrics. It's reminiscent of vintage Swans, but more controlled. "Amnesia" is an acoustic number that begins like Death in June neofolk, but is given the inimitable Swans touch in its orchestration. Title track "Leaving Meaning" is a gentle, psychedelic, modal celebration of the senses completely captivating and drawing the listener in. "Sunfucker" which concludes the first disc is a chant swathed in noise that turns into a rhythmic mantra halfway through.
More surreal, hypnotic psychedelia endues on "Cathedrals of Heaven" which opens the second disc. It's an atmospheric trip heightened by Gira's evocative and visceral lyrics. One of the best tracks on 'Leaving Meaning' in my opinion. "The Nub" is abstract (and likely largely improvised) psychedelia with seemingly little structure until Baby Dee's vocal comes in. Although BD is no replacement for the absent Jarboe, she does fill in the needed feminine touch that makes Swans whole. "It's Coming, It's Real" sounds almost like a woozy, inebriated singalong. "Some New Things" is a trance-mantra that will have you up ghost-dancing 'round the campfire all night long (if you put the song on repeat). "What Is This" is one of the more melodically adventurous songs but hypnotic in its own rite. The closing track, "My Phantom Limb" sounds like an hallucinatory ayhuasca ceremony, or what I'd imagine one to sound like. Overall I don't think 'Leaving Meaning' can be picked apart; it really needs to be experienced in its totality. This may not make it the most popular album in the Swans' oeuvre, but in terms of quality, it certainly is a standout. There are a few tracks that I believe transcend the others for one reason or another, but the impact of the whole is essential to its potency. Release date: October 25, 2019, tour to follow in 2020.