Swans, Children of God / World of Skin

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 11.27.11 in Reviews

Up until 1987, the last place in the world you might have expected to hear an acoustic guitar was on a Swans album. But with Children of God, the band augmented its brute physicality with a “New Mind,” as the opening track put it, and a new palette to match. (“I will be there/ With my eyes wide open/ I will be there/ I will be ready/ To receive/ The new mind.”) From the cover alone, with its puce-and-fuchsia color scheme, its swirls and crosses, you could guess that Swans had entered a new phase, and the album’s first three tracks made that abundantly clear. “New Mind” sounded more or less like the Swans of yore — more cleanly produced, perhaps, but still displaying the same doomy riffs, the same war-dance drums, the same call-and-response vocals — but the “In My Garden” came from a different universe entirely, with a high-necked bass melody inspired by Joy Division, limpid pianos reminiscent of Harold Budd, and a wraithlike Jarboe intoning, “In my garden/ We’ll never die.” “Our Love Lies” completed their transmutation with strummed acoustic guitars and tambourine and Michael Gira not just growling but singing, his baritone sinking to the lower limit of his register like a body weighted by stones. The rest of the album alternates between slow-motion head-bangers, like “Our Love Lies” and “Like a Drug,” and deathly folk songs judiciously touched up with synthesizers and effects, like “Blood and Honey” and “You’re Not Real, Girl.” On the hypnotic title song, Jarboe’s ecstatic mantra (“We are children/ Children of God”) swirls above see-sawing guitars and stark, metallic drum beats; there’s little doubt that, whatever their previously nihilistic outlook, Swans finally see the light of redemption, however fleetingly.

Augmenting the band’s brute physicality

A few months before Children of God, Gira and Jarboe explored even more gentle textures on a pair of albums recorded under the name of Skin. Jarboe’s voice carried Blood, Women, Roses, while Gira assumed center stage on Shame, Humility, Revenge, but both albums shared the same downy textures, forsaking Swans’ usual sturm und drang in favor of strings, acoustic guitars, hushed synthesizers, and echoing electronic drums — a mixture that could almost have been mistaken for This Mortal Coil. Both records were repackaged in 1988 as the double LP, The World of Skin, and 14 songs were selected for 1997′s Children of God / World of Skin reissue.