Sunday, September 26, 2010
Review: Antony & the Johnsons *Swanlights*
[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]
Swanlights starts with a repeated mantra – sung first with a lilting warble and later with a soaring yowl, accompanied by some gentle piano notes, acoustic guitar plucks, a high-hat metronome click, and finally, after a swollen crescendo, a few grand cymbal rolls – just three words, the song’s title: “Everything Is New.” Well, not exactly. In fact, very little here is new.
Antony Hegarty has perfected a sound. What he lacks in breadth and variety, he makes up for with depth and consistency. Swanlights follows the template laid out by I am a bird Now and The Crying Light; it’s a collection of sparsely instrumented folk nocturnes and chamber lullabies, with a couple of esoteric art songs thrown in for good measure. But where Antony & the Johnsons’ previous releases were impeccably crafted and instantly gripping, Swanlights is looser, at times formless and even abstruse. Which is just a kinder way of saying Swanlights isn’t as good as its predecessors.
At their best, Antony’s songs inhabit a place of such intimacy and yearning that they can be suffocating in their beauty. Fans already know the sublime alchemy that occurs when Antony’s voice meets a devastating melody. Songs like “Hope There’s Someone” from I am a bird Now, “Blind” from Hercules and Love Affair’s debut, and Hegarty’s cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” from the I’m Not There OST show that Antony, while being a great songwriter, is first and foremost an expert vocal stylist.
Nothing on Swanlights rivals his prior greatness, but a few songs come close. “The Great White Ocean” is the simplest of the bunch, just the singer, a stately guitar, and a seemingly timeless melody. It’s vintage Antony, as are its familiar themes of mortality and the bonds of family. Austere and aching, “The Spirit Was Gone” is another song about (surprise!) death, which lifts its hook from Paul McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” and puts it to great use. Yes, we’ve been here before, but when the familiar is done this well, why complain?
Swanlights shares a flaw with every other Antony & the Johnsons album: its songs have a tendency to blend together, making a collection of strong material seem monotonous and monochromatic. That said, there are a few left turns here, of varying success. “I’m In Love” is the most successful, and the album’s best track. Above a “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive,” to borrow the words of Philip Glass, Antony sings a repeating eight-tone motif, while a Wurlitzer mimics in kind. The circularity of its structure suggests the perpetuity of finding a new love. It is pessimistic and hopeful at once. Love is lost and found, and lost and found, again and again and again. The album’s lead single, “Thank You For Your Love,” starts out sweet, its bright horn accents a relief to the album’s overall melancholy. Yet for as joyous as it first appears to be, darkness lies underneath. Antony sings thanks to love for saving him from “falling in the seizure of pain,” from being “lost in the dark blackness,” from his mind being “broken into a thousand pieces.” Antony pleads “I thank you!” over and over at the song’s end, and it’s unclear if his pain has been alleviated or exacerbated.
Even Swanlights’ least successful tracks are rescued by a smart twist or an interesting flourish. “Ghost” is closer to “art” than song, but its sixteenth-note ostinati flurries, which suddenly shift to half-time eighth-note pulses, are enough to keep the listener’s attention – a cerebral, if not emotional, payoff.Swanlights’ too-long and soporific title track is aimless for its first half, all drone and reverb, until a drum kit and piano mercifully add some structure to the mess. There’s a gorgeous song somewhere within the meandering “Christina’s Farm,” but you’ll have to wait for it (give It four minutes; it’s worth it). The worst offender is the Björk track ”Flétta,” if only for the great opportunity squandered. Whereas the wonderful Volta track “Dull Flame of Desire” used both vocalists equally, with the bombast they deserved, “Flétta” cedes to Björk’s duller tendencies. The song’s jaunty piano interludes at least inject some life into a largely stillborn track.
If Swanlights had matched the quality of I am a bird Now and The Crying Light, its lack of sonic growth could have been tossed aside as an afterthought, a minor disappointment. Being an inferior album, its similarity only heightens its flaws. Still, it’s almost unjust to nitpick when the overall product is this good. Swanlights is not the departure for Antony & the Johnsons that I’ve been hoping for. Maybe next time. (Might I humbly suggest an album of girl group covers?) For now, I’ll happily settle for a good, rather than great, album.