Let’s get the introductions out of the way before we go any further, shall we? Astral Swans is Matthew Swann.
Now that we have the formalities over and done with, we can get to the impetus for this bit of idiosyncratic musical journalism. Astral Swans have released their self-titled album, Astral Swans. I listened to this recording a couple of times while I puttered about, and then I sat myself down today and engaged with the album. I read the lyrics as I listened with intent. I was intent upon writing what my ears and eyes beheld.
Track one, the ice breaker song, is Spiral. This song gets the album off on a good start. Spiral is a radio-friendly song with lyrics that are open to some interpretation but what jumped out at me was the coda, as we read it below.
“Oh, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned after a while
Sometimes at the bottom of a spiral
It’s just one more spiral.”
Is this all there is? A spirals all the way down? Or, as Sturgill Simpson put it, turtles all the way down. There is a humorous anecdote about this that Genius gives in an expanded treatise. I also really like the line, “Quieter than silent night.” That is magical. Quieter than silent night. Except when my band played the song Silent Night, it got a little bit louder. I digress, back to Astral Swans.
These brilliant lyrics come delivered to us wrapped in silk and crushed velvet. Matthew Swann has a gentle voice by and large that is perfect for the delicate weaving of his songs. Many guest artists contributed to this recording, and each piece has a slightly different flavour than its predecessors.
I won’t expand on every song; you can open them to your interpretation and see where it takes you. I will add a few comments, though, as I relisten to Astral Swans. Track two is Flood which features Julie Doiron. My ears thought they heard a catchy lyric on my early listens to this song. When I read through the lyrics while I listened to it again, I discovered a line that I misheard. I thought I heard them sing, “maybe you and I, candy lovers.” A sweet sentiment to a person that you love. Candy lovers. Maybe you and I are sweet on each other, and we are candy lovers. I had a good laugh when I read that the lyric is actually, “Maybe you and I can be lovers.” It still brings a smile to my face and I have to work hard to hear the actual words. I enjoyed the rest of this song as well as the sweet lyrics.
Blackhole Town appeals to the universal agreement that winning the lottery would be nice, so we can move out of whatever town we are currently living in. I like where I live, but a lottery win would be nice to fix up the house as it slowly gets old around us. This yearning for something better than what we have is a thread that runs through a good chunk of Astra Swans. It is also a state that most humans exist in, wanting more than what we have. Instead of being content with what we have.
I love the title of track five, “Sympathy For The Stupid.” ‘Nuff said.
Self-deprecation shows up in track six, Bird Songs.
“I didn’t deserve you anyway.”
“You’re better without me anyway.”
March 28/20, featuring Silvering, is a bitter pill about a failed relationship.
“Loved my neighbour as myself
So I hate both of us, I guess.”
The track Beautiful Things Happen injects a ray of hope into what could otherwise be a doleful bit of music. “Beautiful things will happen.” I hear an affirmation that things “will” get better. And then the album closes out with misery of “More Nothing Than Something” and “I Was Awake For Awhile.” These are not bad songs. It’s just that they have some sombre lyrical content amid music that is mellow while still engaging the listener. I’ll close with a blurb from the album’s bio flyer.
This self-titled record is Swann’s most upbeat, catchy & immediate album to date. Each song operates as an absurdist short story filled with Swann’s wry observations of the sad beauty of mundane moments. The songs range from affirmations of joy amidst dread, composed in the streets of Shimokitazawa Tokyo and featuring Shibuya Jpop artist Minami Taga (Wind in a Mindless Universe), to ballads of disoriented musings on uncertainty and addiction (Spiral). Songs about birds heckling the anxious and heartbroken in Vondel Park Amsterdam (Bird Songs), to a cover of the Cat Power classic, Cross Bones Style sung as a duet with Julie Doiron (Eric’s Trip, Mt. Eerie). The album closer Awake For a While is a mysterious police interview gone gospel and features the gorgeous vocals of Swann’s childhood friend Carol Sweet.
Astral Swans (ST) was produced and engineered by Paul Chirka (Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra) and Brock Geiger (Reuben and the Dark), with Swann functioning as a third producer. It is rich and spacious, with a diverse array of sounds ranging from delicate string arrangements, atmospheric synth freakouts, deconstructive guitar solos, and pristine harmonies. All the while, seated atop all the instrumental beauty and chaos floats Swann’s haunting voice, which warbles and swoons. Astral Swans ST brings with it an arts commune of fantastic collaborators. Guest performers include: Julie Doiron (Eric’s Trip, Mt. eerie), Cassia Hardy (Wares), L.T. Leif, Scott Munro (Preoccupations, Chad VanGaalen), Shalom Toy (SilverRing), Laura Hickli (36?) Minami Taga (Mako Puri, MakoMinaming), Swann’s childhood friend Carol Sweet, Jim Bryson (Kathleen Edwards, Weakerthans) and more. Each guest adds their own unique addition to the sound, bringing their own bit of the world back into Swann’s solipsistic compositions. The album was released on October 8th worldwide.
OK, I’m back after that short pause. I give this album 7.5 out of 10. It’s a good bit of music but it has a few detractions that hold it back and I suppose it’s just not where my head space is existing today. Not a bad album all in all though.