Over Fall Break I, as many great first-years before me have, decided to return home. My admittedly dull vacation was mostly filled with trips to the local Jewish Community Center, affectionately “The J.” With few old high school friends in town, I mostly amused myself with run-down treadmills and stale free-sample challah. I drove from my house to the center almost every day I was home. The route, by the end of the week, became an unconscious ritual of dull repetition. Driving always has this sort of effect on me; as Jean Baudrillard writes, “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” Sinking into a lucid autopilot, it’s easy to wake up a few stop signs later at the JCC, barely cognizant of the journey. This amnesia though, usually reserved for unengaging math classes or bus rides with a good podcast, it became clear, had been manifesting in a much more long-term way.
I’ll spare you the lamenting clichés about adjusting to freshman year. Shifting friend groups, new academic expectations, and increasing distance from the High School Me are par for the course, and I’d actually dealt with them all, at least in my own assessment, fairly well. Getting distance from the community though meant more time to think, more time to be skeptical, more time to be confused, more amnesia. The seemingly sound roots I thought I had planted here grew more and more transparent, and existentialism, of course was the result.
Like those car rides to the J, arriving in San Francisco was a Hangover-esque investigation into “what the fuck happened last night.” Unfounded understanding of what I want to do with my life being a bit more subtle than Mike Tyson’s tiger, answering this question was hard. And thus, everything was to be discovered; and yet, it felt more comfortable for everything to be obliterated. You don’t have to figure out what the point of working hard is, if there is no point. So, whether pathetic or enlightened, I embraced the amnesia in all its nihilism. I was sad, but at least I wasn’t futilely chasing some imaginary prestige, unreachable happiness. The trip home was pretty depressing.
By the time I had to come back to campus I’d still barely reckoned with these gaping questions I’d filled with NBA season openers and walks around the neighborhood. I put my suitcase in the backseat of my dad’s Subaru and hopped up front before opening Spotify. I never remember what to download for the plane until the last minute. I’d remembered that Swans recently released a new record, so being the good citizen of pretentious online music boards I am, I thought I’d give it a try. What I found in the album, listening in the middle seat of the six-hour flight home, was the confirmation I needed.
leaving meaning. is the 15th studio album from the legendary American Rock group, Swans. The band and its front man, Michael Gira, have gone through several incarnations, and this project serves as the first in the newest permutation of the group after their critically celebrated foray into epic droning Post-Rock. This phase is shaping up to be, while sonically relatively similar to the last, a huge thematic and narrative shift for the band towards a postmodern, aesthetics-first approach. The work quite lives up to the title, but does so with a self-referentiality that not only indulges but celebrates its own confusion.
Swans has, in the past, especially during their last era of production, impressively utilized the opening tracks of their albums as theses. It’s not surprising to start a Swans album with relative shock over a bold and stark commentary. Take “Lunacy” off The Seer which points out the irrational nature of 21st century capitalist living, or “Screen Shot” from To Be Kind which implores the listener to love more, to be kind. This context is what makes the opener on leaving meaning., “Hums,” so powerful. It is a wandering, blissful purely instrumental passage sure to include harp-like fingerpicking and Shoegaze-y reverb. This is not the previously regimented and self-assured Swans of the early 2010s. Doubt is not only present, but it is fully embraced. The song beckons out to the listener, not to preach, but to ask for trust.
As the album progresses, the initial sense of lack of direction becomes more and more codified. The eccentric track listing, while at first potentially bothersome, becomes part of the art as Swans pour out their emotions, not in pursuit of aesthetic coherence, but rather in honest reflection on a confused life. Gira makes sure to note this goal on the title track, exclaiming, “Somewhere, no place, let’s go! Nowhere, this place, let’s go!” As if the record’s title wasn’t clear enough. The song encourages the listener to plunge into this nowhere. Rather than merely recognize, or even celebrate, the failure of intention towards life, Swans suggest seeking out this failure. Let’s all go to this place, nowhere.
The record proceeds to explore several other vignettes of emotional potency like the Aztec chant inspired, “Sunfucker,” or the abstract orchestral exploration of Baby Dee, “The Nub,” before coming to its logical conclusion, “What is This?” With an oddly straightforward chord structure for the group, the second to last song seems like a finally joyful acceptance of the deafening confusion painted across the entire record. Glittery guitars, pinging glockenspiels, and thumping jingle bells populate the instrumental behind Gira’s honest voice as he mutters, “Nothing can stop us from becoming nothing now.” Bordering on political sloganry, the declaration codifies “nowhere” as our collective destiny. The religious subtext cannot be ignored. We will all be saved by meaninglessness. Heaven isn’t some far off destination, it’s my trip home—it’s emotion without direction.
Moved and reassured by the album after my first listen, I decided to replay it on the train from Newark back to Princeton. I was only about halfway through the track listing when the conductor called Princeton Junction and I paused to grab my belongings. After bustling off the train, in a true freshman moment, I crossed over to the wrong side of the tracks and, totally bewildered, could not see the Dinky. After going back and forth for about ten minutes I realized what I had done and crossed over only to find it had just left without me. I had to wait in the cold for the next half hour. I plugged my earbuds back in and sat in the early November night. The fourth song, “Amnesia,” came on right as the last person had left the parking lot and I was alone. “Our hands are two broken claws, we scrape at the ground for hours, I buried this sound in the floor, to gain control of this feeling.” The fight to gain control was useless. I wasn’t going to go answer any of my existential questions—not even why I’m at Princeton in the first place. That was OK, though. The amnesia is OK.