Michael Gira’s Angels of Light return with another collection of blasted folk-blues laments, at once as ancient as the Bible and as modern as tomorrow. After the first, hesitant steps of the debut Angels album, New Mother (1999) and the rapturous intensity of its follow-up How I Loved You (2001), this third album sounds both like and unlike its predecessors. There is the same careful, layered approach to the dynamics of songform, the same painterly use of a variety of acoustic instruments, and the same rich baritone voice singing lyrics shot through with convulsive, passionate imagery. What is new is a certain concision and a less self-consciously epic tone. The ambiguous, hesitantly reassuring message of the title points to absence and longing – an impression reinforced by the cover art, which foregoes Gira’s usual use of resonant symbols and icons in favour of stark photographs of bare domestic interiors.
The songs reflect this impression of acute emptiness. ‘Palisades’ maps the traces left by a death, or a disappearance; its melancholy vocals and dreamlike percussion are fatally undercut by the closing lines: “Reasons won’t come, and no-one will regret…that you’re gone”. The gentle, soft-focus eroticism of ‘Kosinsky’ similarly turns on a knife edge, with the “blonde hair that’s a river of translucent, liquid light” revealed at the end to belong to one who also has “the eyes of an animal”.
The album is full of such striking lyrical observations, but it is Gira’s remarkable voice that animates them, a thing of great beauty, tenderness and rage. Like the great English vocalist Peter Hammill, Gira shapes his songs through compelling shifts of vocal register, allowing the music to live and breathe around the voice. At times, the results are as noisy and driven as anything by Gira’s former band Swans. ‘All Souls’ Rising’ sounds like an Old Testament prophet celebrating the end of the world: “Leave the righteous ones to rise again and drink the light from enemies”. The song is powered by urgent riffing, foot-stomping tension and blasts of coruscating harmonica. The band barely pause for breath before launching into the ferocious ‘Nations’, in which Gira delivers an unusually biting socio-political tirade on behalf of the poor and destitute.
The Angels enrich the sonic palette with inspired touches of piano, violin, flute and pedal steel guitar. These transform songs like ‘The Family God’ and ‘What You Were’, both of which begin slowly and deliberately before opening out into wide, blissful panoramas. Between the two sits the hectic ‘Rose of Los Angeles’, an incantatory portrait of an old woman close to death that exposes the subject’s frailty while expressing anger at the powerlessness of her condition.
The Angels of Light transfix the listener by giving expression to the pulsating, symbolic energy they perceive to be at the heart of existence. But there is a tragic, darkly Romantic impulse to their creations that keeps the work oscillating between joy and despair. Gira plants one final twist at the end of the swinging, hypnotic ‘Sunset Park’. The song repeats the words “She brings some, she’ll bring some, she brings one, she’ll bring one” over and over, keeping the listener wondering what she will bring, until in the last seconds the answer comes with a quietly spoken, almost throwaway “Love”. It’s a touching, generous moment; and yet, as the rest of the album reminds us, love may be all you need, but it certainly isn’t all that there is.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)