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Swans, "Children of God"

cover image1987’s Children of God marked a significant turning point in Swans' musical career. Prior to this, Michael Gira had hewn slow, heavy and angular blasts of negative energy into violent songs of protest. Releases like Cop, Greed, and the sublime Public Castration is a Good Idea marked Swans out as perhaps the heaviest group at the time both in terms of music style and of thematic content. Gira had sung about rape, murder, power, and slavery like a survivor and the rest of the band played with the same intensity. Suddenly, Children of God represented a massive change in trajectory which saw them taking on a new tender perspective which made the darker passages seem even blacker. Acoustic guitars, femininity and flute vie with Ted Parson’s thundering drums, Gira's growling baritone and an ominous void. This was, and still is, a peerless record.

Young God Records

Children of God / World of Skin - Swans

"New Mind," the album’s opening salvo, lurches like a battalion of damaged angels; the plodding beat and Norman Westberg’s grinding guitars driving one of Gira's best vocal performances of the '80s. At this point, the song represents only a slight shift from the heaviness of before but the Jarboe-led "In My Garden" must have been a shock for anyone expecting the usual Swans sound (I had worked backwards when discovering Swans the first time so their early heaviness was the shock for me). From here on, an Old Testament despair permeates Children of God; the lyrics to "Sex, God, Sex" read like one of Nick Cave's nightmares as the music takes on a slow, twisted but beautiful descent into hell. The slow tempos and muscular arrangements that have always been Swans' hallmark have been retained but compared to the graceless but physically imposing Filth, pieces like this were like a poised and deadly assassin.

The mutilated corpse of the blues had already been well and truly dismembered by the aforementioned Cave with The Bad Seeds and their influence (along with the original bluesmen of course) is audible throughout Children of God. Songs like "Our Love Lies" and "Real Love" both could have ended up on Cave's The Firstborn is Dead; unsettling ghosts of Americana hidden amongst the music’s huge fissures. Slide guitar and harmonica sounding like restless dead in the hands of Swans. It is easy to see in retrospect how Swans would soon make the jump to a more country and blues-influenced sound on albums like The Burning World and Gira’s later work as a solo musician and with The Angels of Light.

There are two songs on Children of God that always drag me back to it and, in my mind, they represent everything that make Swans important. The first is the epic "Beautiful Child," a hurtling beast of a song which swallows us, as listeners, whole. Everything from the opening gunshots to the harrowing backing vocals conjures up visions of a blood-soaked religious sacrifice. Gira's bellowing voice contains more conviction and more power than at any other point in his career: "THIS IS MY SACRIFICE!" The violent repetition is balanced by the second piece, namely the album's title track. It is again repetitive with its pulsing guitars and organ creating a swirling, kaleidoscopic trance. However, instead of the aggression inherent in the human sacrifice of "Beautiful Child," there is a hopeful spiritual fervor running through Jarboe's vocal performance. When I first bought the CD version of this album, I would listen to "Children of God" on repeat for hours. Strangely, after all these years of exposure it has lost none of its hypnotic effect.

Jarboe's presence in Swans has always been a contentious issue amongst fans but I have never understood those who only liked early Swans; as good as those recordings are it is only from this Children of God period that Swans truly began to live up to the legend. Without Jarboe's contributions, I do not think that albums like this or their later (and arguably greater) albums would have the same impact. Her vocals have always matched Gira's both in their sincerity and their range. Her move to join Gira at the front of Swans on Children of God was as vital to Swans' evolution as was Gira’s act of picking up an acoustic guitar. Swans' overly masculine outer shell needed Jarboe's delicateness and, as she would show later in their career, she could let rip when needed.

After 23 years, Children of God has aged remarkably well (only the original album art has really aged badly, thankfully the CD reissue on Young God Records came with a far better cover). While I tend to go to the live albums when I am looking for a Swans hit, this is an album that from start to finish never fails to fully pull me in. Along with Soundtracks for the Blind, Children of God is their studio masterpiece. Hopefully, their forthcoming album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky will pick up where Soundtracks left off. Bearing in mind that some of the songs from Gira’s recent solo album (like "Eden Prison") bring to mind the same vibes as Children of God, my money is on it being another masterpiece.




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