Swans – The Burning World (1989)

December 8, 2012

(2020 edit: It’s worth mentioning that in the last 8 years since this review was written, I have grown up considerably, and now appreciate The Burning World for what it is. Either way, here’s the 2012 review in its original format, some of which is also a bit factually inaccurate, so please take it with a pinch of salt.)

Hmmm, this is going to be a controversial one for me. I don’t know how I can write about this without being downright horrible about one of my favorite bands of all time. Hard Times. Fuck it, here it goes.

The Burning World is Swans’ sixth album, and marked the final nail in the coffin for the early days of audible hell. Industrialists, grinders, arty hipsters and noise nerds dropped their support for this band in fucking droves the moment The Burning World hit the shelves, and it’s very easy to see why (2020 edit: There’s a brilliant bit in the book Sacrifice And Transcendence where Lydia Lunch accuses Gira of selling out with this record, and he really doesn’t like that one bit!). Even compared to the tamer-than-usual sound of fifth album Children of God, The Burning World is a hundred thousand miles away from anything Cop or Filth. Gone are the dirging bass rhythms, the relentless and pounding drums, the hellish and fucking loathsome lyrics! In are all the acoustic guitars in the world, a plethora of studio session musicians, a major label budget and THAT Johnny Cash crooning. Yikes!

And thus began a period in the history of Swans that both Jarboe and Mr. Gira like to pretend didn’t happen (2020 edit: again, not strictly true). In retrospect, Gira admits to loathe The Burning World, and he even repressed the two albums to follow it on a compilation called Various Failures. You think he’s trying to tell us something? The fact that he didn’t repress The Burning World for fucking aeons also cements the fact that he hates this record, and even when he did so in the compilation form of Forever Burned, the pressing number was significantly lesser than all the other Swans re-issues. Following  Swans records White Light… and Love of Life went on to achieve something of a cult status (I personally think Love of Life is spectacular) but The Burning World sank like a stone and for the most part remains in the depths of the music world where nobody gives a shit about it.

I’ve seen this and the CD version go for some ridiculous prices online so when I saw it for like £15 on Discogs I snapped it up, mainly because I am a massive Swans fan boy and simply must get every single record (I cringe at the day I have to fucking buy The Great Annihilator which is by far their worst output), and in all honesty, it started to grow on me. I don’t really know why, because it is a shameless, major label funded, Bill Laswell fueled try-hard attempt to break into the mainstream, but I gotta say, The Burning World has a few great songs. If the tribal drumming aspects of “Mona Lisa Mother Earth” aren’t good then I might as well be deaf, “(She’s A) Universal Emptiness” is far more impressive that similar-sounding depressed cunts The Smiths and “Saved” is the best song in the world for describing my life. I don’t deserve it, but I’m Saved.

Until the disappointing chorus kicks in, “Jane Mary, Cry One Tear” builds and builds in such an epic fashion, with heart-wrenchingly depressing lyrics, and closer “God Damn The Sun” has gone on to become a Gira acoustic classic. It is the only track on this album that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is purely one of the most goddamn fuckin’ miserable things I have ever heard. Even though Swans changed just about everything to do with their sound, the same themes remained. Okay, it’s not quite “push your ass up / cry / open your mouth / here’s your money / cry / this feels good” or “somebody weaker than you should rape you, bastard” but the lyrics still centre around demons, loss, death, depression and apparent incomprehensible self loathing. I think then, we can forgive the mighty Swans this one hiccup! Long live the crushing monster! 

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