Secretly Candian, 2010
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/11/2011
When an album doesn’t live up to the massive hype surrounding it, it somehow becomes even more of a disappointment. All the pieces are here on this disc, the latest from indie darlings Antony & The Johnsons: Antony Hegarty’s magnificent, crystal-pure vocals, ominously stark lyrics, and taut instrumentation. But the overall effect of Swanlights, their follow-up to the critically-acclaimed masterpiece The Crying Light, is extremely inaccessible and at times utterly morose with not as much payoff as this listener would like.
Swanlights is definitely not an album you can listen to once and feel at home with. The opening track, “Everything Is New,” is stilted and choppy, but when you listen to it multiple times, you realize that that’s precisely what they were after, so that when the track finally coalesces into its orchestral conclusion, all swelling keys and Hegarty’s rafter-reaching vocals, it’s something beautiful and wholly different from what the song was. Antony & The Johnsons is clearly focused on overall effects and aesthetics, and each song is like a miniature world.
The problem with that, though, is that there’s no real cohesiveness to Swanlights, and no outstanding songs like The Crying Light. Each cut has its own strengths, but as an album, it flounders. Hegarty often sounds uncertain, less the powerhouse that he’s come to be known as. The most succinct way to describe this disc is esoteric. It really does resist interpretation in a lot of ways, and those that appreciated the group’s earlier efforts may balk at the cracked vocals of “The Great White Ocean” or the abstractness of “Fletta,” which finds Hegarty pairing up with Bjork. Their voices pair beautifully together, but it’s hard to tell what that beauty actually amounts to. Overall, Swanlights might have benefited greatly from a few more accessible tunes thrown in – no less aesthetically pleasing, but something that might have allowed the listener to connect with Hegarty more and to feel more grounded in his gorgeously amorphous world.
Perhaps the closest thing to that is “Thank You For Your Love,” recently released as the first single off the disc. It’s simple and subdued, quietly anchored by drumbeats as the song launches out but soon it’s a fanfare of saxophone. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin, and the burst of actual energy is a welcome change from the minimal, even at times plodding, pace of the rest of the album. Plus, the sheer ebullience of Hegarty’s voice on lines like “Now there’s a reason to wake up each day / A reason to shake my blues away / Now I am whole, a lucky soul” makes the whole song a joy to listen to.
Still, there are moments when the group’s experimentation and willingness to reinvent themselves hits home. The title track, “Swanlights,” is six minutes of moody, yearning loveliness, proving that when you give Antony & The Johnsons time to grow and prove themselves, they are as amazing as their reputation would portend. Warping his voice through distortion, Hegarty creates a track that is subtle and blackly brilliant.
Overall, Swanlights is an album that gets richer with each listen, although it is definitely not the peak of what Antony & The Johnsons can do with their talent. Still, this disc proves that they are as artistically inspired as always, and it will be interesting to see in which direction they head next.
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