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Antony and The Johnsons - Swanlights

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Artist: Antony and The Johnsons

Album: Swanlights

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Oct. 13, 2010

The appropriate way to introduce this review of Swanlights would probably be to provide a capsule description of Antony and The Johnsons’ three albums to date and, from there, to list a number of themes and patterns, to lend clarity to the arc created by those three albums and, subsequently, to volley out a theory explaining just how Swanlights fits in to that arc. A summation and a completion, something to provide an explanation that’ll hold up until the next album comes along. Trouble is, Swanlights seems designed to upend expectations. Following the lush-yet-stark environs of last year’s The Crying Light, which pushed Antony Hegarty’s already-stunning voice to its limits atop resonant Nico Muhly orchestrations, Swanlights is a step back in the direction of accessibility. Björk makes an appearance, and some of the songs’ arrangements recall early-1970s Van Morrison -- though referring to this as the “pop album” from a group who have already released a fine cover of “Crazy in Love” is probably missing the point.

There’s an edition of this album that comes with an accompanying book of art, and that aesthetic seems to have been transmitted to the music -- a sense of broadening one’s stylistic reach, and of marrying multiple styles beneath a single heading. And so we have, in Swanlights, one album that can include the taut, piano-and-strings arrangement of “Ghost” alongside the almost-retro soul of “Thank You For Your Love” and “Flétta,” which sounds not unlike what you might imagine from a duet between Hegarty and Björk. Moreso here than on this group’s previous albums, Hegarty is allowing for a greater musical range, and both he and his band are up to the challenge.

Swanlights’ moves in the direction of accessibility are balanced by more unsettling moments. The pair of songs that close the album, “Salt Silver Oxygen” and “Christina’s Farm,” are each bracing and occasionally shocking. The lyrical imagery in “Salt Silver Oxygen” moves from a childlike sense of delight to something more complex, religiously informed and subversive. Hegarty’s vocal range and control of volume are showcased over a rich orchestral backdrop that becomes more ornate as the song progresses. By contrast, “Christina’s Farm” is more minimal, consisting of only Hegarty’s voice and the sound of a piano for much of its seven-minute running time. Here, the lyrics also encompass some religious imagery, but the effect is more intimate and, ultimately, haunting.

In its scope, Swanlights is as bold as anything this group has made. It is at times a joy to listen to -- the ebullience of “Thank You For Your Love” can’t be confined to the music emanating from speakers. And yet, its showcase aspects are an even bolder declaration: of how catchy this band can be, and yet how confessional, and of the many ways their music can disarm the listener. It’s a difficult accomplishment, encompassing pop and the avant-garde while also featuring a particularly striking element (in this case, Hegarty’s voice); all three are well-represented here.

By Tobias Carroll

Other Reviews of Antony and The Johnsons

Antony & The Johnsons

I Am A Bird Now

The Crying Light

Thank You For Your Love

Cut the World

Read More

View all articles by Tobias Carroll

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