Review: Michael Gira – I Am Not Insane

“SWANS ARE NOT DEAD”. This is what was displayed on the Swans’ official myspace page last month. What an exciting little announcement it was. Better still was the further news that a new album was in the works, and that frontman Michael Gira was to release I Am Not Insane – a limited edition CD of the songs up for consideration in their primitive state of vocal and acoustic guitar – in order to fund the recording process.

I’ve tried to ensure that my critique of the music isn’t swayed by just how gorgeous the I Am Not Insane package is. Gira has hand-painted the artwork for every album in this 1000-copy run, tucked in a personalized thank-you note and included a DVD of live acoustic performances. It seems as though every attempt has been made to ensure that this isn’t just viewed as a cobbled together money-spinner to wring the funding out of the mindlessly fanatical fans. Additionally, I’ve kept in mind that these tracks represent the songs in their most basic form; Gira is renowned for gathering up countless collaborators during the writing process and transforming his acoustic sketches into full-band renditions with vocal harmonies, organs, strings, glockenspiels…you name it. No doubt these initial ideas will be blown out of recognition by the time the actual release comes around.

In fact, now I’ve listened through this album several times, part of me doesn’t want these songs to be taken out of this acoustic context. The final versions will most probably clean up the coughs, background clatter and rusty fret noises that are dotted around I Am Not Insane and make the whole listening experience so captivating – this is the sound of just Michael and his guitar in a room, and the whole rough production gives the very firm impression that you are sat there with him.

Judging by the band’s consistently great back catalogue, I’m positive that the final arrangements shall do the songwriting justice. It’s extremely strong throughout most of this release, bringing together elements of Angels of Light and “The Great Annilihator” era Swans. “Little Mouth” and “Inside Madeline” stand as definite highlights, oozing soul and riddled with the deep scars of personal experience, coupling simple chord progressions with a painfully heartfelt delivery. Gira’s voice is on incredible form here, delicate and sensitive when it needs to be and rising into agonized groans when the emotion reaches boiling point.

The only weak track on here is “No Words/No Thoughts” which, as Michael himself says at the beginning of the track, is a “song with no words”. Instead, he reels off random utterances, vaguely resembling lyrics but exposed as gibberish on closer inspection. Although this appears to be the central premise of the track (judging by the reckless guitar work, perhaps it’s all representative of some kind of mindless catharsis), it doesn’t hit as hard as the other pieces. Without a message, Gira’s voice sounds aimless and stripped of conviction – it’s a tentative sigh in amongst the furiously dissonant acoustic backing.

But it’s certainly not enough to dampen my excitement for the upcoming release. This is a very impressive batch of songs overall – in fact, what may been intended as an early taster of what’s to come is actually a solid acoustic album in its own right. Fingers crossed the rest of the Swans line up are as enthusiastic about Gira’s rough drafts as I am and get this album together sharpish. I’ll be waiting impatiently.

Although this release is now sold out, you can read more details about the rebirth of Swans here.