Antony Hegarty loves themes. So, it’s no surprise that the fourth album from Antony and the Johnsons, Swanlights, opens with the insistence that “everything is new” and ends by repeating this line with the added image of “your face and my face / tenderly renewed.” Between these points, Swanlights is an evocative, but flawed, journey up a sonic mountain and back.
Swanlights‘ fault is that it feels, especially in its opening third, as if it wanders with little destination in mind. Openers “Everything is New” and “The Great White Ocean” are gorgeously structured – is there any Antony song that isn’t? – but aside from introducing some of the album’s major leitmotifs, they struggle to create a definite draw. This is not a thick sounding record. There are only a few songs where a dedicated percussion section can be readily identified. It’s this more ethereal sound – string sections, classical and jazz tempo shifts – that gives the album a feel of disembodiment.
But perhaps that’s the point. Swanlights works, especially in the run of songs between “I’m In Love” and “Fletta,” when the album juxtaposes these airy moments with more dominant ones. “I’m In Love” rides on a hypnotic keyboard loop and a tinny rhythmic backbone that lets Antony’s vocal flights truly seem grounded in something. The title track uses backwards masking of vocals and music to create a bed of droning, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding support for one of the album’s most lyrically affecting moments and its musical peak. And Antony’s duet with Bjork on “Fletta,” which follows the most upbeat song on the record, “Thank You For Your Love,” is a sparse, piano-driven exercise in putting two intensely unique voices astride one another to excellent effect. Though some of the songs in this section are just as untethered as the earlier ones, they work much more effectively surrounded by these counter moments.
The record stumbles at the end by placing “Salt Silver Oxygen” between “Fletta” and the closing “Christina’s Farm,” but only because the song itself feels out of place in this spot. And while Swanlights on the whole feels a bit less than it could be, its most powerful moments are equal to any of Antony’s prior work and create a challenging listen for fans of the artist. It’s not a great entry point for new converts, but for those already ‘tenderly renewed’ in Antony’s powerful voice, it’s yet another gorgeous creation by one of the most unique artists of the 2000s. words/ j neas