Michael Gira's Angels of Light received a respectable 8.0 review on Pitchfork today. There are just two weeks to go before We Are Him hits the record store shelves on August 28th.
Angels of Light
We Are Him
[Young God; 2007]
A year ago, writing for Perfect Sound Forever, Brian Hell buried himself in a series of questions about lyrics with Michael Gira. The Angels of Light Sing "Other People"-- the fifth album from Gira's prime project since Swans' end in 1997-- had just been released. The most telling question and answer refer to "Simon Is Stronger Than Us", a playful song with Akron/Family, then Gira's backing band, teasing his broad baritone with yelps for harmonies. Hell inquired if the line "And Francis did that, too, though Francis drawed London and made no excuse" was a reference to Irish painter Francis Bacon: "Well yes, I am referring to Francis Bacon there, very astute of you," the singer replied.
Of course Gira would reference Bacon, call him by name even: Articulating with screams, something Bacon specialized in while painting, has been paramount to Gira's aesthetic for a quarter century now. On We Are Him-- his sixth and arguably most engaging album as Angels of Light-- he lands some of the best of those complete releases. Gira seems more empowered and commanding than he has in a decade, the emotions he's conveying coming in huge fits that, like Bacon's, are as powerful as they are draining. He's backed by one of the most impressive guest lists of the year (Akron/Family providing the basic tracks, plus new friends or longtime collaborators Larkin Grimm, David Garland, and Bill Rieflin), but one must understand that this is Gira's album. He lets it all out and wastes little time: Four seconds into the colossal opening track, "Black River Song", for instance, a thick electric bass knock pumps against every heavy drum hit and compacted guitar sinew: "Black river runs/ beneath this ground/ Black river flows forever/ But he makes no sound." The chorus-- some variation of the series, "Fading, growing, breathing, flowing," sung by Gira and female voices-- is sinister, challenging and almost sexy.
A track later, a rocking-chair rhythm moans beneath Gira's snarl. He's rarely sounded this foreboding: Prodded by a scathing, raw violin drone and a daring chorus of sirens, it's an escalating dirge for the collapse of society, full of floods, blood and mouths too stupid to scream. Beneath an electric guitar twitter, heavy drums and furious strings on "My Brother's Man", Gira hands down these imprecations: "I walk through the thick black mud. I walk with my brother's blood. I see with my brother's eye. I scream at my brother's sky." Swans, anyone?
But this record isn't so simple. "My Brother's Man" notes that the brother is capable of murder and so is Gira. But it embraces the relationship, vowing to crush god "in my fucking hand" for the sake of fraternal legacy. It's protective, triumphant. The subsequent "This Is Not Here"-- a dark duet with Gira's wife, Siobhan Duffy-- offers the lovers choices and endings: Will the world steal the sun, or will the lovers touch the light? "Will you dream that we breathe?" It's not about anger or fatalism. In 1984, Gira screamed about burning and eating hearts on "Raping a Slave"; in 1995, he sang about supplication to God while witnessing the fragility of the world during "Our Love Lies". We Are Him is a near-perfect, totally committed summation hammering at the same unresolved archetypes from someone who's now a father.
That's not to say that this album is without its share of misses, or at least the occasional artistic anomie that has, by now, become a requisite of Gira's work. Those songs aren't better left unsung: "Goodbye Mary Lou" has a purpose, its rhythm an uneasy country twitter that leaves Gira little room to do much but say exactly what he's feeling. The first verse ends "Mary Lou, I renounce you"; the second, "Mary Lou, fuck you"; and in closing, the indiscretions of young anger that have been boiling for a lifetime come crashing down with a wink: "Oh Mary Lou, I forgive you."
We Are Him is ultimately about getting by, about trying to survive with a family and a faith at a time when "the dogs...howl as the street fills with blood." Gira, at 53, continues to evolve, to challenge himself, to question his beliefs. As long as he does that, every song won't roar like the perfect first two tracks of We Are Him or have the brilliant gospel insistence of the title track. The slight, charming chamber pop he tries won't always work as it does on "Sunflower's Here to Stay", a song that pushes for persistence. Luckily, doing otherwise has never been an option for Gira.
-Grayson Currin, August 14, 2007