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
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 (19821997). 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
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.
In your tenderness, in your innocence
You were far away, with your secret bliss.
You were far away, with your perfect god."