2020, for all its damnable qualities, brought us a remaster of the most foul and poetic of Swans’ storied discography. Children of God is an ear-shattering, spine-chilling, breathtaking opus that truly has few equals in history, and yet Swans mainstay and front man Michael Gira contrasts Children of God from precisely such a kind of (later) record as Antichrist Superstar, writing, “I didn’t want to mock the religious impulse, which would have been a typical thing to do at the time, but instead to get inside it.” It is precisely in this holy infiltration that Children of God finds what distinguishes it as a truly insidious piece of artistic history; here in 2021, its message is more timely than ever with the brutally renewed revelations of decades upon decades of the unfettered, salvific abuse of generations of Native children in the residential ‘schools’ of North America.
The sensual, decadent seduction of Jarboe and Gira’s spittle-spraying fire and ice contrast is the predominant sonic conflict in the album’s progression; Gira swaggers and incants like a brimstone-belching Baptist preacher at his finest, a demagogue of the highest order, full of divine wrath and wisdom, drawling and chanting with satanic swagger, while Jarboe is salve to the scourge of his manic screaming. The theme of abuse – spiritual, sexual, physical – bleeds heavily throughout the album, and by the time the sequence of “Beautiful Child” and “Trust Me” arrives, so disgusting and wretched that words truly begin to fail to capture the pure ugliness of the album, the schizophrenic pairing of Gira’s pious assault”cauterized with Jarboe’s saccharine pronouncements, and vice-versa, Children of God not only drips but seethes with this unrelenting menace of a savior’s bipolar ‘love,’ perfect and perfectly patriarchal.
If there is one lone and singular complaint to make, it is that in the process of the 2020 remaster, the album-defining “Our Love Lies” has been sterilized with some curious production choices that bring instruments once buried to the fore – interesting perhaps, but in the best interests of the song itself, perhaps not; some sacred cows are just best left unslain. Beyond this indignity, to this luddite’s Children of God-adoring ears, the finer details of the remaster remain somewhat ineffable. However, this mortal sin is alleviated with the inclusion of Feel Good Now, a live album of Swan’s 1987 European tour, wherein “Our Love Lies” is properly furious and disgusting as the original 1987 mix.
Not lightly does one ever speak of Swans; few bands can lay claim to being such a genre-bending, expectation-subverting influence in the music scene. Anyone who has yet to be tortured by Children of God would do well to mark the occasion and plunge deep into the waters; as Jarboe sings: ‘I found you lying where I drowned you/where I threw you in the waters/where I drowned you in the river.’ We all deserve, even need, such a loving drowning these days, lest we as a society forget the totally toxic allure of crooked men delivering deific discipline.