Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (Review)

Antony and the Johnsons
Secretly Canadian

Swanlights, Antony Hegarty’s fourth Secretly Canadian LP, is his most musically adventurous recording to date. That said, he doesn’t lose sight of any of the focal points of his previous releases. Antony and the Johnsons still craft music that has one foot in the pop singer-songwriter domain (“The Spirit Was Gone”) and the other in a wondrous kingdom devoted to the post-folk aesthetic (“Everything is New”).

But there are forays into still more adventurous terrain here. His duet with Björk on “Fletta” could seem, at first blush, like an overt attempt to add some star power to proceedings. But it’s hardly a marketing ploy. Placed on the back half of the album, it serves as a meeting place for two famously stylized vocalists: a high wire prospect to say the least. But Antony and Björk, while remaining distinct entities on the track (how could they not?), come together as a felicitous pairing, singing dovetailed phrases and stacked harmonies that are both effusive and elegant. Correspondingly, the piano-only arrangement channels a bit of the character of Vespertine’s post-classical ambience.

Elsewhere, Hegarty and company explore other classical reference points too. “Ghost” is rife with minimal piano ostinatos and awash with string section underpinnings, all buoying a sumptuously soaring vocal. The chamber orchestra returns for “Salt Silver Oxygen,” creating a pastoral ambience that accompanies Antony’s elfin double-tracked vocals.

But Swanlights isn’t all longhair charts for strings. On the single-worthy “Thank you for Your Love,” Antony is backed up by a horn section, supply singing a modern day version of blue-eyed soul. If the song presents itself as a comfortable echo of Antony’s previous work, it’s a most welcome reminder of his uncanny ability to thoroughly inhabit a warmly embracing hook with affecting earnestness. That quality is most welcome in the often jaded terrain of today’s indie pop.

Antony and the Johnsons appear live on 10/30 in New York City at Alice Tully Hall

One thought on “Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (Review)

  1. I was introduced to his music by a friend (who plays flute on several of Antony’s recordings) when I told him I was interested specifically in meeting and working with someone who could sing gospel and/or blues music I was arranging. And hearing him shortly thereafter at the Knit in NYC- after having experienced far too many zoned out, un-emotive, boring-ass singers in that town – it was a real relief to hear someone who sang with such feeling (and humor).

    I don’t really hear him as a “pop” singer. Antony’s roots are definitely in some pretty extreme forms of punk and “goth” music (Christian Death, Cocteau Twins, Marc Almond) and the Avant Garde, so yeah I’d be uncomfortable putting him in any sort of musical “box.” BUT – he/she’s definitely a soul (wo)man, man. And he has acknowledged his debt to and love of great black American singers in many interviews and in his own recorded repertoire.

    I mean, can’t you just hear the Donny Hathaway/Robert Flack covers album in your head? Or a tribute to the late Solomon Burke? Or “To be Young, Gifted, and Transgendered”?

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