In the last five years alone, Antony Hegarty has been more productive than he has in all the years prior. To put it more clearly, since 2005’s “I Am A Bird Now”, he’s taken a bit of a star turn on the debut album from Hercules and Love Affair and put out two new records and two EPs. If it seems like it’s only been a minute since there was an Antony and the Johnsons record, you’d be right. Last year Antony and his band put out “The Crying Light”, and a couple months ago came the “Thank You For Your Love” EP. Now there’s yet another album out this week from Antony and the Johnsons titled “Swanlights”. If you’re enough of a fan, a limited edition version of the record comes with a 144-page art book that features paintings, photography and writing by Antony. The two are intended to compliment one another, even if most people will only get the music half.
What helps make Antony Hegarty such a compelling musician is the way he combines that gorgeous falsetto of his with delicate instrumentation to compliment the impassioned words that are being spoken. Unlike so many bands that can get away with a catchy guitar riff or bouncy chorus, Antony and the Johnsons albums are designed for close and hushed listens, the kind where you lay on the floor with headphones and try to both decipher the poetry in the lyrics while allowing the gripping emotions in Antony’s vocals to create additional depth to that. A song like “Thank You For Your Love”, which repeats the titular phrase dozens of times, is an excellent example of how even the simplest of lines can change the entire tone of a song based solely on how it’s sung. The horns, piano and percussion help to round out one of the most accessible Antony and the Johnsons songs to date, but by no means are those things essential the more you listen to it.
While it’d be nice to say that if Antony went a capella that these songs would be just as great, the truth is that the myriad of instruments on “Swanlights” help provide the necessary structure and commercial viability a record like this requires. Compared to past Antony and the Johnsons albums, this new one is actually the most varied and exploratory in terms of song structure and genre. Pop isn’t the right word to describe any of the songs on “Swanlights”, but certain moments are easier to digest than others. Much of the first half of the record appears devoted to the previously mentioned experimentation, though these songs aren’t so much challenging as they are simply revealing a different side of Antony. “The Great White Ocean” is intensely restrained, devoted almost entirely to Antony’s vocals with just a sparse acoustic guitar to aid him in holding down the melody. Compare that with the lush “I’m In Love” just two songs later, which incorporates organ, piano, strings and a tempo that’s upbeat but not quite toe-tapping. It’s almost night and day when you examine how both tracks were constructed. The title track only dabbles for the first 30 seconds in backwards recording, but that’s also virgin territory for the band. It makes you wonder why after a few short piano bits and a line or two of vocals things flipped to the normal forwards.
One of the biggest issues with “Swanlights” is how unevenly paced/sequenced things are. With such a wide variety of sonic experiments, the constant jumping around takes you out of the full album experience just a little bit. You want the quieter piano tracks next to one another, the big orchestral numbers close by, and the higher gear uplifting stuff in a group. At least that way you can argue that there are various parts as you journey through the record. To surround a more upbeat horns track “Thank You For Your Love” with the delicate piano and strings of “The Spirit Was Gone” on one side and the standout/standalone piano and vocal acrobatics duet with Bjork “Fletta” on the other is just madness. Taken one by one in single song format, all three tracks are excellent, they just lose a lot of their power because of how and where they’re placed in the album.
It stands with little contention that Antony and the Johnsons have been on something of a prolific streak with all of their recent releases. They espouse a certain sound and have ably maintained it since “I Am A Bird Now”, with the twist here and turn there to keep everyone fully engaged and wanting more. With “Swanlights” there’s an even greater extension of that trademark sound into territories unknown, and virtually all of the little experiments work tremendously well. The issue is less with the individual songs themselves and more with how the entire record comes together. Specifically, when listened to from start to finish this album sounds like one large transitional phase, in which the band is just throwing a bunch of different stuff at the wall to see what sticks. If these songs were represented by foods, one would be a chewed piece of gum, another would be peanut butter, and a third might be maple syrup. You like all these foods, and depending on what you have a taste for will eat them in delicious fashion. But does a peanut butter, gum and syrup sandwich sound at all appetizing? No it does not. You want to eat one at a time. “Swanlights” goes for the combo sandwich and it winds up a bit iffy. The best choice is to pick one thing and make a full meal out of it. That’s what’s worked for Antony and the Johnsons in the past, and hypothetically speaking, should work for them again in the future.