Antony and the Johnsons


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Swanlights, the fourth full-length by Antony and the Johnsons, reveals that 2009's The Crying Light was a stepping stone that furthered his sophistication as a songwriter, arranger, and singer. While that album's tunes about acceptance, death, transformation, and loss were added to immeasurably by Nico Muhly's gorgeous string arrangements, Swanlights employs the same band, this time augmented by a chamber orchestra. Antony Hegarty uses his voice on this set as much as a textural element in his songs as he does to deliver his poetic, and sometimes head-scratchingly obtuse lyrics, like "Elect the salt mother, for she is a selective Christ." These songs engage with popular genres from folk-rock to grand classical chamber orchestral, but they do touch on vanguard art song as well. Their themes often comment on the natural world -- a huge part of Hegarty's moral conscience -- but lyrically, this is a more difficult album to pin down. Album-opener "Everything Is New" features one of his standard tropes: using a repetitive piano line and his voice to play upon the title in various ways, breaking the words up in various combinations and cadences to create a mantra-like effect before bringing in the band, in a near-modal exploration, to hang his lyrics on. "The Great White Ocean" follows it, still using that theme, before becoming its own lovely, near-nursery rhyme; it sounds like a prayer adorned by acoustic guitars, Julia Kent's cello and Hegarty's vocal softly moan between and after the verses. "I’m in Love" feels a bit like Steve Reich scoring an early-'60s Doc Pomus song, with winds, strings, upright bass, drums, and piano all melding in a near-fingerpopping, soulful anthem to romance. "The Spirit Was Gone" is a haunting meditation on death, with Hegarty accompanied by Kent and a small orchestra, but it's countered by the nearly shimmering pop of "Thank You for Your Love." The strangeness of "Fletta," an Icelandic duet with Björk, is in a genre all its own and departs markedly from the rest of the album's contents. The voices are accompanied only by Hegarty's piano. The sparse phrasing is nonetheless insistent; its melody walking the margins of folk and classical minimalism: if the latter was heard by Kurt Weill. Classical aspirations continue on "Salt Silver Oxygen," but these songs as a whole suggest the place where Van Dyke Parks might be entertained by the spring-like harmonies of Vaughan Williams' songs. Ultimately, in mood, ambition, and execution, Swanlights is a testament to Hegarty's increasingly iconoclastic -- yet gorgeously accessible -- brand of art pop.

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