The opening track of their new album is called “No Words/No Thoughts.” The first part, the four minutes of instrumental, is clearly the No Words. When M. Gira’s voice finally comes in, he’s not much happier than he was for his last Swans album.
The sounds of Swans are back, but the really big difference is that the menace is tempered somewhat. I’m almost tempted to call it better production values. Early Swans was really scary…slow, ponderous and heavy. And while those same qualities are here, it’s not quite as ponderous or heavy, and the pace is rather brisk on this first song.
But after this cacophony, we get the two minute a cappella “Liars.” The music is only humming background vocals, but it is no less intense, especially when Gira’s sonorous voice reads a spoken section. It’s very catchy (practically a first for Swans), but no less spooky.
“Jim” has some more cool harmonized backing vocals: a whole bunch of “Na Nas” which again, does not lessen the intensity of the song. Although for old school Swans style, it’s track 4, “My Birth” with its creepy piano opening and bludgeoning noise for four minutes that shows that Swans are reaching back.
“You Fucking People Make Me Sick” opens with a Jew’s harp and then features guest vocals from Devandra Banhart and a child singing call and response. While not as scary as some other tracks, it’s very creepy and not quite Devandra’s usually hippie fare. It’s really good. Especially the end instrumental part with dissonant piano and horns (!)
“Inside Madeline” is another song with 4 minutes of instrumental introduction before settling down into a relatively quiet song (more horns) that is far less sinister than most of these tracks. “Eden Prison” has a wonderful circle high pitched guitar swinging around the background of the clattering noise. It’s 6 minutes let up only briefly but the really convey claustrophobia.
The disc ends with the quiet “Little Mouth.” It’s a slow ballad with whistling (!) and acoustic guitars in the background. There’s a beautiful guitar solo which ends with Gira’s a cappella voice ending the disc.
I keep referencing Swans early music. It’s true that their later stuff was far less scary and intense (“Can’t Find My Way Home” was a beautiful ballad which should have gotten more airplay than the original). But this disc is certainly a call back to Swans’ roots. Another thing is that Jarboe is not present on the disc (a first since their early days).
It’s a great return of a New York institution.
[READ: February 15, 2011] “Truncat”
This story is set in the same world as Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, although it does not take place in The Magic Kingdom at all. Rather, it is set in Toronto and is considered a quasi-sequel to the book even though none of the characters are the same either. Although all of the elements of that novel are in place: deadheading, whuffie, and apparent age among other things.
Interestingly, this story gives more details about the world than Down and Out did. Or at least it spells it out more clearly. So we get:
Adrian’s father was apparent 22, hardly older-seeming than Adrian himself, though his real age was closer to 122.
It doesn’t explain everything, but it spells things out pretty clearly.
This story is about Adrian, an actual 17-year-old who is going to school and is getting hassled by his parents. They want him to go to a school for mathematics, but he is more interested in sociology, specifically how his generation are going to be the last humans born. Since no one dies anymore, there is a penalty for having children. No one dies anymore because they backup your memories every so often; if your body dies, they just clone you with your old memories.
Adrian and his friends spend most of their downtime illegally uploading other people’s memories into their brains. Depending on the length and quality, they can live entire existences in just a few minutes. They call it flash-baking. It’s illegal to have other people’s memories in your head; every time you go to have your own memory preserved, if they found false memories and you’d get in trouble.
Things only get worse for Adrian when his mother thinks that he is not focused enough and taps into his mind to make sure he’s not doing anything untoward. In the past he used to store his flash-bake files in a public folder, but now, with his mother snooping around, he has to rely on others. And his whuffie is dropping.
Then Adrian meets an actual person, Tina, who seems genuinely interested in talking to him and getting to know him. It turns out that Tina has been off earth for most of her life. She has very little experience with the world that Adrian lives. But he feels a real bond with her and he trusts her enough to show her how to flash-bake.
The story hinges on a weird twist: Tina knows one of the people who Adrian has flash-baked. She’s furious that he is trying to live the man’s life, and he’s furious that she won’t introduce him to the man (who has a fascinating life).
Doctorow does a masterful job of keeping these two stories alive and active: You can see both POV’s regarding the flash-baking, and what will happen with Adrian and his parents (this story seems to be less important once the Tina arc takes off, but it turns out to be the real ground of the story).
I though the end kind of fizzled a bit, but that speaks more to the quality of the whole story itself than the ending. Once you get into Doctorow’s world, it’s a very believable (and scary) place.