On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.
“Everything is new,” Antony Hegarty’s voice quavers on the opening track of his gorgeous new offering Swanlights. But how new would you want the proceedings here from Antony and the Johnsons to be? When you’ve pretty much nailed timeless, why budge from there? Remind yourself that Antony grew up in a small town in rural England. His alma mater, The University of California at Santa Cruz. Yet, Antony has fashioned an identity every bit as unearthly, as ethereal as one of those few iconic figures whose past we forget, whose identities become almost alien, something apart. Think of David Bowie. Think of Bjork, Antony’s sometime collaborator, who also contributes to a single (and singular) track on this album.
Antony is a musician whose voice is his instrument. His voice seems as relevant in a small, dark bar as it does spot lit on a stage with an orchestra sprawling behind him. In a time when even the most broadminded of folks still wrestle with traditional views of sexuality and gender, Antony’s tremulous, omni-sexual voice is eminently accessible, if not accessed by many. Still, to hear some listeners reference their annoyance with his voice is, perhaps, to register the average human’s continuing discomfort with those individuals who allow for their gender to fall breezily between polar points or even to ignore the concept of gender all together. That voice guides us through 11 tracks on Swanlights, Antony’s fourth effort with the Johnsons. Those songs sometimes drift into one another, which makes for a more amniotic album experience than most artists are creating in the age of iTunes and the indomitable MP3. “Everything Is New,” for example, subtly overlaps with the lullaby lull of “The Great White Ocean.” Even as lullabies often contain darker themes, a primary theme of Swanlights seems to be death. That’s reflected in song titles themselves: the splendid, tremulous “Ghost” or “The Spirit Was Gone.” The title track, too, “Swanlights,” reminds us of the expression “swansong” and, as close attention to the album’s cover art reveals, it also refers to the story of a polar bear named “Swanlights,” which was hunted and killed for dog meat. Antony himself describes “swanlights” as a term for “the moment when a spirit jumps out of the body and turns into a violet ghost.” Appropriately, an unofficial, yet popular video for Antony’s beautiful duet with Bjork features video of two killer whales separating a gray whale calf from its mother and killing it. Simple, oddly beautiful, yet disturbing, like much of Antony’s music.
The aforementioned “Flétta” features Bjork trilling softly in Icelandic, initially against minimalist piano. She raises her volume, however, and the piano becomes more driving as Antony eventually joins her. On the even quieter title track, Antony’s voice runs backwards initially before sliding into the song’s minimalist lyrics. Any electronic touches prove consistently light, leaving the songs feeling timeless. Set against tender strings and tentative piano, “The Spirit Was Gone” also feels ancient. It’s the most mournful, exquisite song here. Consequently, following this song with “Thank You for Your Love” evokes surprise. Here, Antony proves the most straightforward, the most upbeat, certainly the most removed from the balance of the album’s more melancholy themes. He begins with relative restraint, but gradually lifts the song into a swirling, ecstatic state. The Johnsons also sneak saxophones and trumpets into the mix here, contributing to a sound much like tempered version of a classic soul track. That song also provides a bookend to an earlier effort, “I’m in Love.” It features a gentle flapping sound as Antony sings how he’ll “kiss you like a humming bird.” If he flaps there, elsewhere Antony soars: if “Salt Silver Oxygen” doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, you should check your pulse. As Antony bursts into the enigmatic lyrics repeatedly – “she is the selective Christ” – pumping tubas join him, rising, rising, swirling, until the effect is electrifying. All of this accompanied by Nico Muhly’s impeccable string arrangements.
As the lengthiest contribution,“Christina’s Farm” closes out the album gravely, and Antony recalls the album’s opening, now with a subtle shift to the past tense: “Everything was new,” he sings. “My face and your face tenderly renewed.” Is this despair or promise? The dead end of dissipating love? Or a slender shoot of hope poking up through a crack in the hardened ground? And so ends an eerie, intimate album from an inimitable artist.