Swans' grand new album, "To Be Kind," is a career-defining work that few could have expected from a 30-plus-year project considered by many to be well past its peak. At 122 minutes, it's as long as a movie and as densely heavy as a Richard Serra sculpture.
Defying easy categorization, "To Be Kind" is a rock album, but it's not something to be taken lightly. Brash, polarizing, fearless and filled with a purity of vision that would make Col. Kurtz blanch, the work features mountains of guitars and beats made with boulders, brass, laser-gun noises, guest vocals from Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) and a sprawling vision. At various times, founder Michael Gira squawks like Johnny Rotten, at others he pleads like Patti Smith. He conjures the spirit of Jim Morrison on "She Loves Us," loses himself on the marvelous opener "Screen Shot," a man lost amid fury and rhythm. On "Bring the Sun," Gira roars like he's feral.
Best, though, "To Be Kind" is fearless — unafraid to alienate, to kowtow, to expand beyond the constraints of the standard structure, to lean into the burn. At various times suggesting to the Doors' "The End," Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" or the Stooges' "Funhouse," the album isn't so much music to hear as a headspace to descend into — a sound that you need to really make a decision on.
Do you feel like total immersion? Can you endure such intensity? How much, really, do you want to rock? If it's only a little, or you're with your 10-year-old kid and you don't want him to have nightmares, go elsewhere. This will terrify. But if you want to get real, real gone and express your inner Solange, "To Be Kind" will guide you. Just be careful.
"To Be Kind"
4 stars out of four