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44.1 kHz Archive

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Angels Of Light
How I Loved You
Young God

I first heard Angels of Light's recent release, How I Loved You, while sitting at a table in one of San Francisco's Mission District coffee shops, where a Goth boy barista had put it on. Snippets floated in and out of my consciousness while I sat sipping bitter coffee, editing prose. The music compelled me to get up and ask Goth boy for the jewel case.

Hmmm, I thought. So it was Michael Gira, who previously led the very underground New York band Swans.

In the café, the music sounded textured and rich, almost religious, redemptive, Pentecostal and passionate. So the next day I trotted off to the record store thinking I must have my very own copy TODAY.

At its best, How I Loved You is darkly beautiful, disturbing music that paints sweeping panoramas of Sturm und Drang as it engages matters of the heart. Where Nick Cave gave us "murder ballads," Gira here offers "murderous love ballads." About empathy, jealousy, lust, surrender, and how love is linked with humiliation, suffering, beauty, good and evil — they're downright frightening.

Consider these arresting, incestuous lyrics from "Song for Nico":

"Paradise is glowing in your milky sea —
Mother, come for me.
The red velvet scar, on your white inner thigh,
Shows the beautiful colors of the scars in your mind.
But I am the reason, your legs are apart —
Mother, come into my heart.
Your voice is the steel blade...."

Angels of Light is the songwriting project Michael Gira started when he terminated Swans (1982–1997). It's his poppiest effort to date, but it's a far cry from the Top 40. On the indie scene for about 20 years, Gira plays singer, songwriter, musician and producer for AoL, a loose collective of musicians, mostly longtime friends. The songs' core is Gira's voice and art-folk acoustic guitar, with layers upon layers added over the top. Friends add their musicianship and sensibilities, and Gira has the final mix, a process that often degenerates into what he calls "lapses of over-orchestration." This is actually his aesthetic goal, and one for which his friends often chide him. Gira himself acknowledges his excess. Admirers worship that excess; it's what they loved about Swans and now AoL.

Gira's aim has never been to make seamless pop that shows how pleasant life is under capitalism; in fact, he has veered toward the academic as a deconstructionist, emphasizing ruptures within the order through banging and wailing and assorted noise during his many years as a screaming Swan. How I Loved You is Gira's, and AoL's, most subtle effort to date — and it's not exactly subtle. Although he has quieted, as many do as they mature, jarring the listener is still part of the mix (literally).

Gira's "over-orchestration" involves slowly evolving sonic repetition plus nakedly pleading lyrics, all building up to a cathartic release. Under the right conditions, the repetition has a narcotic effect, creating a mesmerizing euphoria. Sometimes it is simply annoying. To some ears, the songs on How I Loved You are unjustifiably long. "New City of the Future" and "Two Women" clock in at just under 12 minutes and end up becoming, at best, monotonous, even if they start out great. Despite their artfulness and Gira's talent, the songs can cause pounding headaches. On How I Loved You the aesthetic on many songs starts out lovely and stirring, yet ends up ponderous and grating, laborious and claustrophobic.

"Evangeline" is one such song. It begins harmoniously, but at just under nine minutes, it's too long. It becomes a downright painful auditory experience, and it is a perfect example of the sonic and lyrical excess Gira is going after (John Cage's danger music?). For me this repetition doesn't work; it becomes too much. I get impatient, frustrated with the lack of changes in song structure. Suddenly I find myself longing for hooks and jangly guitars! All the listener gets is this constant (albeit melodic) banging, Gira using his voice to pound out a silly, over-the-top female name, "Evangeline," over and over. But again, this is what Gira is going after, and it's easy listening for his longtime fans.

I think it's important to note that many listeners truly love what I find problematic about the album. Just as a few in the underground ardently loved Swans' work while most Americans didn't get it, many listeners find How I Loved You sumptuous and sublime. And I don't fault them for that. I'll explain.

I personally have never been into the Goth scene. How I Loved You's first cut, "Evangeline", fetishizes a perfect young woman who lies sleeping so still she seems dead. One imagines her as pale — as pale as a Goth. It's a problematic image for those of us who were never romanced by things Goth, who in fact thought them trite. This album is infused with Goth love pheromones — not in a hokey way, but still. Moreover, the name "Evangeline" sounds precious, the way the name "Guenivere" does, repeated over and over in the song "We Laugh Indoors" on Death Cab for Cutie's The Photo Album. Why are these smart bands choosing such ridiculous female names? Perhaps in AoL's case, it's Gira's dark humor.

Don't get me wrong. There are songs I love dearly on this album. One of them is "My True Body," a horse-galloping song that even refers to a black horse! Underground guitar hero Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club, Cramps, Bad Seeds) plays electric guitar on this track. The song's lyrics are erotic, terrifying, and sung to a mysterious melody as if by a headless horseman into the night sky:

"Now I am your mute cousin
Young shaved virgin whore
On my prison steel bed I wait for you
So follow me down
I'm weeping and torn
Put your dirty white hands inside of me."

Partly because of Powers' participation on the album, several critics have compared Gira's work with AoL to Nick Cave. But, what I'm hearing is the much-overlooked Gun Club as much as Nick Cave's Bad Seeds. Although I love Cave, Gira is, in my opinion, more authentically dark. While intellectual, his work takes more risks. He puts himself even more on the line, commercially and artistically — like Jeffrey Lee Pierce, frontman for the Gun Club, who gave it all up for rock 'n' roll, singing "I'm gonna buy me a grave yard of my own," and who, romantically to some, crooned "She's like heroin to me." Just try to top that for badness!

Gira appears much healthier than Jeffrey Lee ever was, sound in mind and body. Jeffrey Lee, to his fans' eternal sadness, died of an aneurysm in 1996. If anything will bring him back from his tortured resting place in the cemetery, it could well be Gira's gothic, obsessive poetry, profane yet ecclesiastical, like a bloodletting, a spiritual release, as on "Two Women":

"I'll steal the diamond that flashes in your soul
If you'll come for me,
Will you come for me, will you come for me...
We'll rise above, we'll rise above...
I can't live without you...."

But, to listen to "My True Body" is to feel that Gira has emerged as a cousin of Cave and Pierce, as if they are bastard sons of the same mum. (We know, however, from How I Loved You's packaging that Gira is the legitimate child of middle-class parents, including an attractive mother.) An experiment: put AoL, Gun Club and Nick Cave on your carousel and notice how well they play together. It's family.

I also love "My Suicide," a stark, ominous, acoustic folk-art song with alternating parts played on ukulele, and Gira's voice in the foreground. It sounds like dark circus music and could pose as the soundtrack to "Freaks" (1932).

"Cut the eyes out of my head
Tear my tongue out if I speak.
Raise up your camera, raise up the lights —
Feed the evil and the weak.
Hear me now, my tongue is in your ear —
The center of your body is the place
I hide the fear I lost of suicide...."

The song recalls themes common for Gira since his Swan days: melancholy, morbidity, the tension between fascination and repulsion, and the unspeakable's transformation into the transcendent.

So, it turns out that the coffee house, with its multiple distractions and entertainments, was, after all, the best setting to hear AoL's second release — at least for me. The album is strongest when you catch snippets; then it can be stirring. It's like a Wagnerian opera with moments that are just fabulous, but you have to sit through some long stretches to earn them. And the fabulous moments — the incredible songs — do rise organically out of the whole. So, the album is of a piece, in fact a meditation of different aspects of love, even if I do not care for all of it, or even much of it. But I'm just one person, and to tie everything up, I want to tell you about my friend, St. Clare, who loved Swans and now Angels of Light.

For me, St. Clare crystallizes the album's themes. Her namesake, the original St. Clare, a 12th century virgin, gave new meaning to "austerity." Chaste Clare practiced self-abuse — rigorous fasting, hair shirts, poverty — from the commencement of her puberty on.

My pal, the mod St. Clare, was at one time a Goth. When I visualize Gira's ideal "Evangeline," I see my friend, a blond, blue-eyed innocent, a sleeping beauty, rising above the blackness, above the filth, of a Dickensian city.

"There's a silver stream, laid across the sky.
And this city lifts up its arms to it.
As I wait for you, Evangeline.
Yes, my eyes have seen your unselfishness.
And my fingers touched, your two sleeping lips.
As the city flashed, just beneath a cloud."

Only St. Clare isn't so innocent, and she's wide awake. Regarding the pounding that so upsets me? Clare says Gira's music live and recorded, from Swans to Angels of Light, is "Like sex — no, make that hard fucking. Or being beaten on your ass then cooled with wet rags, or being wounded then soothed, or violated then taken care of."

Scorpio rising — and innocence, transcending? Well, well. Maybe so, in fact, quite likely.

"Evangeline, Evangeline...
In your tenderness, in your innocence
You were far away, with your secret bliss.
You were far away, with your perfect god."

by Jillian Steinberger

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