The period covered by 1999′s Various Failures: 1988-1992 is a curious one in Swans’ history. On the one hand, not only was Michael Gira preoccupied with failure as a lyrical theme, but it also seemed to dog the band’s efforts to realize the expansive vision first articulated on Children of God. For the first and only time, Swans signed to a major label for 1992′s The Burning World, produced by Bill Laswell – a haunting, heavily acoustic album notable, in particular, for the unremittingly bleak “God Damn the Sun” and a shockingly pretty cover, fronted by Jarboe, of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” But the record sold poorly, and the band was soon dropped; the experience soured Gira on the entire endeavor. “That record makes me cringe,” he told an interviewer in 1995; “Often, I wish I’d never made it.”
The next few years were beset with problems with their subsequent labels, Rough Trade and Sky Records; nevertheless, Swans seemed incredibly energized in this period, recording a pair of back-to-back albums – 1991′s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1992′s Love of Life – that channeled the band’s assaultive force and full-spectrum dynamics into an overwhelming wall of sound that fused acoustic and electric, tenderness and violence, agony and ecstasy. In 1990, Gira and Jarboe also revisited their Skin project (now called the World of Skin) with Ten Songs or Another World, a more stripped-down and acoustic approach to similar ideas; of particular note is a haunting cover of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog.”
For 1999′s Various Failures, Gira cherry-picked the best of all four records and their attendant singles. The double-disc collection may not do justice to the four albums, all of which are stronger than Gira seems to remember – particularly White Light and Love of Life, which fused feathery acoustic and electric guitars, bells, thunderbolt drums, Jarboe’s angelic vocals and Gira’s soul-scouring scowl into a sound that feels like the sky being ripped open by serrated rainbows.