RADVENT Day 24: Swans’ “Greed” / “Holy Money”

For the first 24 days of December, Radio in Opposition and guests will share with you one very special album, one day at a time. We call it RADVENT.

And so we come to the end of our RADVENT fun. Our final day finishes out with Thin Privilege‘s Paul McArthur. They have a new single, which you can check out here.

“Time Is Money (Bastard)” by Swans is probably the song that has played the single biggest part in taking me where I am today. Ostensibly a dance song (albeit an ugly and intensely monotonous one), it comprises a pounding 4/4 with a sample of a nailgun where the snare should be, barked vocals and not a hell of a lot else – a guitar squall here, a bass clank there. Gira’s narrator fantasises about dominating a hated authority figure through the medium of sexual violence, acknowledging his antagonist’s autonomy (“your body is private/your mind is sacred”) immediately suggesting various ways in which this autonomy can be broken down (“you should be violated/you should be raped”) and eventually building to a disturbing act of imaginary forced fellatio (“suck it/suck it/suck it” etc. etc.). Occasionally, tribalistic chanting disrupts the song’s relentless forward motion.

When I first heard “Time Is Money” as a 19 year old with inclinations towards nihilism, worsening mental health problems and zero employment prospects, its combination of sub-musical stomp and (almost repulsively) violent sentiment made me feel both uncomfortable and powerful. I would listen to all six-and-a-half perfectly formed minutes of it over and over again on the hour long walk to my call centre job, then again on the way back. Eventually I would get to my garbage-filled flat that I shared with a girlfriend I didn’t remotely care about and her yet-to-be-house-trained dog, where I would listen to it some more for good measure.

Eventually I got together enough money to buy my first Swans album, the 2-CD Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money compilation. Cop and Young God are both perfectly fine in their own right (“Your Property” is still a favourite), but the Greed/Holy Money portion spoke to me directly on a gut level. For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to these albums as a single release – both were recorded at the same sessions, in any case.

The material that comprises this compilation represents a halfway house between the earlier primitivist sturm und drang of Filth, Young God etc. and the more nuanced songform of Children Of God, though still leaning a little closer to the former than the latter. Certainly monomaniacal repetition is already Gira’s calling card at this point, but its use is more insidious than punishing. Acoustic instruments make their first prominent appearance on a Swans record, as does Jarboe – primarily providing wordless moans and incantations, but also taking lead on “You Need Me” and “Blackmail” (a slightly less chilly version of which also appears on Children Of God). Jarboe’s role is less integral here than it would be on future releases, but it’s easy to see that her presence is at least partially responsible for the stylistic sea-change at play. All-in-all, the effect musically is somewhere between pulverising metallic slink-and-stab á la Thirlwell (“Money Is Flesh”, “A Screw”) and a kind of haunted industrial blues (“Nobody”, “A Hanging”).

Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart had introduced me to the idea of transgression in music over the preceding couple of years, but the lyrics on Greed/Holy Money took this idea in a different direction altogether. Where Stewart’s words seemed to hide some kind of moral core beneath the histrionics (or at least an understanding that things like child abuse are inherently bad), Gira presents his subject matter directly and bluntly, very rarely breaking into anything that could be described as emotionalism.

Gira sums up his lyrical approach best in RW Hessler’s Swans bio, out of date but presented as the definitive article on the Young God website: “I usually took my lyrical ideas from a lot of different sources – work (which uniformly felt like slavery at the time), to sex (which felt like an invasion of my privacy) to mass media (which felt like complete mind control -and still does)…”. Gira plays both doer (“Open your mouth/Here’s your money”) and done to (“I’m your stupid/helpless child”). Elsewhere he indulges in self-negation (“I mean nothing to myself/I’m nothing I’m nobody”) and conflates religion with auto-erotic asphyxiation (“I feel myself in you/I’ll hang for you”). All the while, the dollar sign emblazoned on the cover makes itself known as characters are bought and sold. On occasion, I felt like I detected a hint of gallows humour, a charge which Gira would doubtless have contested (an anecdote from David Yow of Scratch Acid/The Jesus Lizard in Roni Sarig’s 1998 book The Secret History Of Rock confirms my theory – look it up). Jarboe’s contributions steer the album into conflicted emotional territory; on “You Need Me”, she vacillates from all-enveloping inferiority (“I love you more than myself”) to passive aggressive statements of ownership (“I am your only friend”). Always the genderless, faceless “You” vs. the blank, empty “I”.

There are Swans albums I’ve spent more time with over the years (The Great Annihilator, Children Of God) and albums that have even more personal meaning (Soundtracks For The Blind); Greed/Holy Money holds the distinction of both kick-starting a lifelong love affair and revealing the aesthetic thread that runs through all of the art I love, helping me to understand myself and my own process in ways that would have been unthinkable beforehand.