Friday, March 13, 2009

Some short notes on the cover of Swan's White Light from the Mouth of Infinity

A little rabbit-boy stands looking lost in his sunday-school finery, wielding a carrot and all alone in a queer landscape. He appears to be standing in a bloody heart. What on earth is going on here? And more importantly, what does the music sound like?

This beautifully mysterious cover for Swan's awesome (in every sense) White Light from the Mouth of Infinity may not be a design classic. But it has that strange property of getting odder the longer you look it. Is that carrot food? Or a weapon? What's with the heart? Why is he dressed like page-boy? It’s a wonderful—and unsettling—example of a band using a painting by a contemporary artist to disorientate their audience and confound expectations.

Swans first took flight in the no wave movement that slithered out of New York in the late seventies. They were uncompromising brutalists: their music was punishingly loud to the point of unlistenability. Legend has it that people would throw up at the sheer sonic bombardment. Swans did it before My Bloody Valentine and they did it louder.

Swans was Michael Gira, now the head of Young God Records. He was the entranced shaman at the heart of their sound, flinging nihilist chants on tracks with one-syllable titles like “Cop”, “Thug” and “Fifth” and (later) more family-friendly titles like “Raping a Slave” and (my personal favourite) “Public Castration (is a Good Thing)”.

If Swans had continued occupying this fetid niche, they would have gone down as a footnote, an extreme but ultimately unpleasant milestone in the history of the American underground. But Gira had realised that extreme volume and battering music was dead-end. He had an artistic ambition that couldn’t be contained by one-dimensional sturm und drang of his band and so he began to take steps toward a new dimension.

So, with a new partner and amanuensis in the shape of the mysterious Jarboe in the band, he began stretching and tearing at the template, mutating Swans into something deeper, allowing ancient folk and cracked blues to seep into the songs. Gira’s, meanwhile, voice was evolving into something compelling, stentorian and mile-deep, with Jarboe’s witchy ululations interleaving with and leavening his baritone.

So successful was this evolution that they signed with a major label, releasing just the one record. Unsurprisingly it was not a success. Gira learnt that lesson that Swans’ evolution shouldn’t be about grasping for some kind of popular acknowledgment. Freed from this anxiety, the two best records of Swans’ career swiftly followed.

So that’s the potted history. What about the cover? The history tells us that Swans were at a crossroads — their previous songs had been about death and paranoia and self-loathing and doom and despair and all things gothically awful. Not a million miles away from Nine Inch Nails or Tool today. But this cover says something has changed.

Compare to their previous covers. Filth gives me nightmares, Cop is striking and spare, while Children of God hints at the pagan or animistic influence that was seeping into their sound.

But it’s the White Light cover that really shows that Swans had arrived at a new and coherent vision. The songs had slowed. Some were even ballad-pace, even if they were filled with Gira's unremittingly bleak poetry. But something mythic or archetypal had crept into their songs. Some wit appeared. And this cover perfectly sums up the ambiguity. It’s sort of sweet and scary, like a myth or a fairy-tale too horrible, or at least too odd, to tell to children, some image dredged up from a dyspetic's insomnia.

The painting is by Deryk Thomas, a Scottish-based painter whose website features some more straight-forward fairytale paintings such as “No Use Crying”.

Here’s what he says about his work for Swans:

I still get letters from Swans fans wanting to know if I'm a real person or just someone made up… 'Deryk Thomas of Edinburgh' is a real person and yes surprisingly I'm still alive and working

I produced the Swans album art in the early 90s. Swans were a colossally great group and I was a real fan of their music… I recall sending a drawing of a little rabbit to Jarboe sometime in the late eighties… It was a small sketch for something I was formulating, provisionally called “Ups and Downs in Toy Town”… I got a call from Michael Gira saying that he liked the image and wanted to use it for their next album cover… He then wanted to expand on the original piece… Thus bunny becomes bunnies and then bunnies become fireballs … I did a lot of artwork for Swans… and I know that many of the unused images ended up on sundry rogue websites and the like… That is very annoying, as many of those drawings I really dislike… and that's been the only stuff on the web, I believe,

I still enjoy looking at this image, because it was so completely simple. The original sketch was just that: a motionless bunny in a big green field and a big blue sky… the viewer has little to look at and so hopefully begins to consider the rabbit and move into some inner place… There's a lot of feeling there in the blankness for some reason… And I like the title Michael gave it… He's a very humorous man… curiously at one with his excessively astute ontological exactness… In Edinburgh, Swans nearly killed their audience with the extremity of their volume… that's an honest fact…it's no joke.

Although the very mysteriousness of this cover is what makes it so compelling, there's a clue to where the story goes next on the cover of Swan's follow-up album, Love of Life, where our rabbit friend has been joined by an identical companion. Their carrots now droop sadly and their heads blaze as if dipped in oil. No, I've no idea what it means either. But it's an arresting indeed beautiful image.

(Full disclosure: I may find this sleeve personally unsettling because of an early encounter with the B&W comedy Harvey, about the man who’s accompanied everywhere by a six-foot invisible rabbit. As a child I found this idea intolerable. It still gives me the willies.)

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