Disc 1 — White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity
After a disastrous flirtation with a major label on The Burning World, White Light From The Mouth of Infinity was a self-financed regaining of confidence for Michael Gira. The acoustic spirit of Burning World was still high on the agenda, but the lacklustre verve that cursed that LP was ditched in favour of something more epic. With a glimpse of World of Skin in the rear view, it marked a definitive turning point for the band that would filter through to subsequent releases like Love Of Life (more on that later), to be fully realised on the mid-nineties’ The Great Annihilator.White Light is one of my favourite Swans albums, along with glorious Children of God (honestly, don’t get me started on that subject) and not just for Deryk Thomas‘s demonic bunny on the cover art, which has been especially expanded for this reissue. There’s plenty of dirgy joys to be had as that muscular bludgeon of yore was successfully re-evaluated into a harmony-rich uplift. A frame of reference that seems to expand before your ears as Gira’s booming vocals siphon a gathering storm (reflecting the angry horizon of the artwork).
Like a gutsy Andrew Eldritch twinned with a despondent Johnny Cash, his words shadow-ride those percussive licks and slab-o-tronic basslines, and even the acoustic guitars seem to bleed a new rawness. Not as visceral as the amphetamine-fuelled days for sure, but still charged with a don’t mess with me attitude that hits true with the listener. The music is literally crammed in there, sliding from loud to quiet. The first two tracks set the album’s focus brilliantly: “Better Than You” possibily poking the vees towards the major label that dropped them, with its secondary Easterns nibbling at the solidity of the bass and percussion, taking you away on tasty glass on anvil dramatics. Jarboe haunts Gira’s lead vocals, which fill the quieting instrumentation with twists of surreal discontent: “Close your eyes, touch your mouth in the mirror / That’s the wound that is made where the past meets the future” — lyrical glimpses that feel like venus flytraps hungry for more insects. The tipping maelstrom of “Power and Sacrifice” with its galloping drums follows, incessant chanting and sloping orientals pulling at the lyrical flow.Some of this is quite chirpy, like “Love Will Save You”; that is until you focus on the downward bend of Gira’s world view, the full clout of which falls exquisitely through one of the album’s centrepieces – “Failure”, a self-worth annihilation that shows the extent that major label debacle might have had on his psyche. The Jarboe configurations are mercilessly sorrowful too, dragging you willingly onto the rocks of a bone-dry river bed. Something I can never get enough of, swarming with inviting melodies that curl and burst on fatalistic blooms of voice: “Song For Dead Time” choking on melancholic refrains, the whispering tapers and noir hues of “When She Breathes”; the slow ecstasy of it all.
The acoustic pleasures of the “Miracle Of Love” with its light drum punctures is a haunting preamble that runs away in rolling drums and winding guitar bouquets; “Blind” – not included in the original release – is a jangly country-sounding number that also captivates… “I was self-deluded and blind”, goes Gira about his younger self. “When I look in the mirror I feel death, I feel cold”. The lilting “The Most Unfortunate Lie” ends the first disc of the three CD set in mild percussive slaps and banjo, before Gira pulls the curtain down on his personal pain once again.
Disc 2 — Love Of Life
The panoramic opening title track of Love Of Life continues the verve set down on White Light, peppered with dictaphone sound bites and odd looping instrumentals of the type that would later fill Soundtracks For The Blind. Gira’s songwriting is superb too, like a gothic Paisley plucking at the nature of existence, love, loss, etc; themes shrouded in arresting imagery, vivid poetics pinning back the skin and riffling inside. The music surrounding them lives in the moment, fed with unpredictable slashes of tempo, fiery crescents plunged into the fire-eaters mouth, ripples of energy extinguished in smoky curls of reflective melody.The pure mesmo-worthy balladry of “The Golden Boy Swallowed By The Sea” gets eaten in cobbley texturing and gilded chords that sway in the paraphrase swell, “injecting colours into our open veins”. “Sometimes love is violent”, sings Gira, adding “and violence has no constraint / With this knife of silver I will release you soul and throw it out into the ocean … / … a ship on the water where no dimensions exist”, those half-painted pictures joining in some unholy union, keelhurling to a skittering backdrop, Jarboe bringing out a romantic fervour in Gira, mirror-feeding his inner female.
The rat-a-tat adrenalin of “Amnesia” with its electric ziggurats milking the word play in an atrocity exhibition(ish) of tightening rope to snaking ney and teethy chords. “The sun is an acid eye / We’re corroded with pleasure inside/ There’s a hole in your thin white skin / Now we’ll never be clean again…’, images of hopelessness predominant, free from their inner shackles as they bleed with a strange optimism: “My heart is a lead box / Ideas are shutting locks”.“Identity” is another wonderfully bleak offering turned on its head, a child speaking his lyrics as Gira murmurs to duplicating rivers of melody and hand-slapped skins slurring menacingly at the occasional word. “So we are blind and we’re polluted / And each breath is drunk with tears / We’ll drift away across tomorrow / And we’ll ride the breath of nothing through the years / Killing time/ Killing time”.
The best track though must be “God Loves America”, a scornful commendation of mass consumerism that suggesting “in the blood of our procreation annihilation grows”, Gira’s words ringing true to the blindness of our collective greed as the music behind it gropes towards a celestial wound.
And any object industry required / We bought, enslaved or we crushed
And now our minds are as naked/ As the paradise we stripped
And our reward is our entropy/ Our emptiness is our gift
Disc 3 — Bonus Disc
A rich stream of bonuses follow on the last disc, over 79 minutes worth of out-takes, alternate gems and side projects that burn plenty, a long-lost album drifting back from the past into the future.The long version of “Amnesia” with its dustbin lid thunder, screams and howls, Gira crooning like a dry Ian Curtis whilst fencing in a cavernous grain silo. The live version of this sounding like a time-travelling out-take from the Feel Good Now album, and “The Unknown” (another live track) sounds like it should have been on To Be Kind. Yep, this is just as good as the last two discs if not better; that version of “Dead Time” with Gira singing instead of Jarboe, the guitar convorting like a perfect curve in your mind – a panting heartbeat that Jarboe follows in whispering phantoms. The slow ache of “No Cruel Angel” is incredibly intimate too, but it’s the long version of “Love Of Life” that does it for me, a radical departure that skates very close to being techno with its whip-cracked intensity and machined pummel, choruses cut and sampled-kicked further out by Jarboe’s choral curls.