Strange, magical and indeed other-worldly
Pieter | Johannesburg | 07/20/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"World of Skin was a side project of Michael Gira's Swans, created as a vehicle for expressing the softer side of Gira & Jarboe's vision. This atmospheric 1990 album appeared between Swans' über-folk masterpiece Burning World of 1989 and the two 1991 albums Love Of Life and White Light from the Mouth of Infinity. The image of Cerberus on the cover serves as warning to approach the other world with caution. These ten songs enchant, terrify and entrance in turn. You may enter now ...
... through Please Remember Me, a poignant mid-tempo song with Michael Gira on lead vocal. Next comes the stirring Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes; it's the poem To Celia by Ben Jonson (1573-1637) set to hymnal music. Sung like a devotional by Jarboe, it concludes with a recitation of The Lord's Prayer over a collage of ominous shortwave noises and found sounds. A cursory glance at Jonson's lyrics reveals nothing overtly spiritual; the theme seems to be romantic love. Still, there are ambiguities and the melody undoubtedly originates from the Olde English Hymne tradition. Interestingly, The Lord's Prayer has an early connection with punk/goth music as it appeared in medley form on Join Hands, the 2nd album by Siouxsie & The Banshees, blended with O Claire de la Lune/Mon Ami Pierrot, the chilling Tomorrow Belongs To Me from the movie Cabaret and sundry other snippets.
The elegiac Everything For Maria mourns the death of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas. More particularly, it vividly portrays the scenes immediately following her death when certain unnamed people - servants or bodyguards perhaps? - burst into her chambers to take stuff like jewels and tapestries. The impact of the cinematic imagery is enhanced by the literary device of juxtaposing Maria's most triumphant moments - the huge bouquets & the adulation she received - with the room spinning as she was passing away, the vultures plundering her possessions and the finality of her ashes upon the Aegean.
Michael sings on The Child's Right, a desolate ballad about death and decay with vaguely religious imagery and I'll Go There, Take Me Home, a mighty rock song of which the power pales however in comparison to the terror that follows, a chilling interpretation of Nick Drake's Black Eyed Dog with Jarboe's bellowing vocals as haunting and hair-raising as on Mother Father from The Great Annihilator. Eerie breathing and disembodied electronic barking add another layer of unease; this song leaves your hair standing on end for the duration of the album. If the Edvard Munch painting The Scream were given a voice, this is exactly what it would sound like.
After Michael's harsh & bitter song A Parasite and Other Stories, Jarboe returns like an angel of morphia, luring you into the oneiric other-worldliness of the melodious Dream Dream. Uncompromising to the end, Michael bids adieu with the relentlessly pessimistic penultimate track You'll Never Forget, while Jarboe's tuneful Mystery Of Faith concludes the music on a wistful note with poetic lyrics over a gently lilting beat, calling to mind a song like Nico's Sunday Morning on the first Velvet Underground album.
The Nico connection is then reinforced by the German male voice that subtly enters the mix about three quarters through, gradually becoming more prominent and continuing to recite cold after the music has ended. The narration by Hans J Blatter describes a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth encompassing actions like remembering & forgetting, reproduction, dying, killing, imagining, rejecting your identity and shedding your self-consciousness in order to enjoy the absolute freedom of being a simultaneously superfluous & essential part of the cosmic whole with no self-awareness. Or something like that!
Even though the tone of the recital is one of melancholic renunciation, there is something sinister as well, an ingredient difficult to define. The profusion of front rounded vowels (unknown in English) creates rhythmic patterns that resonate with hypnotic power. The sound moreover reminds me of the Sylvia Plath poem Daddy that contains the German word "ich", the one in which she likens the language to an engine "carting her off ..."
Besides the devastating Nick Drake cover and I'll Go There, the album shows the softer side of Swans as indeed the World of Skin project was meant to do. Soft in sound, that is, not feeling, as the tracks take you through stations of sorrow, sighs too deep for words, mournful resignation, petrifying panic & immobilizing despair. But beyond the music, when the notes have faded the voice survives for a little while, the voice of Teutonic Thanatos. Ten Songs is a work of astonishing emotional depth and singular aesthetic impact.