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Antony and The Johnsons

Swanlights

Rating: 4.1/5.0

Label: Secretly Canadian

With his very first release in 1998, Antony Hegarty established himself as a polarizing character for music fans and critics alike. His defining tremolo wail and affinity for operatic arrangements made him equally loved and lauded by all sorts of listeners. His heavy-handed melodrama – explored through a variety of maudlin characters and muses – worked to perfection on 2009’s The Crying Light, as the ambitious arrangements provided a haunting atmosphere for the album’s dark lyrical content. One year and one EP later, Antony and The Johnsons are back with another full-length, Swanlights. For fans of Hegarty’s work, his self-conscious vocal affectation is immediately recognizable, but unlike The Crying Light, where Hegarty wore his melancholy on his sleeve, Swanlights explores a previously clandestine joyous and exuberant territory, providing a fascinating shift in musical perspective.

Hegarty assures us of a fresh direction from the very opening of Swanlights, repeating the phrase “Everything is new” while sparse piano chords build and collide with hopeful string arrangements. The first few songs provide the very beginning of a transition from The Crying Light, as Hegarty seems to use these tracks to cleanse his soul of all sin and sadness. “The Great White Ocean” sees the singer focusing on redemption and salvation as he says, “Oh my darling father/ rescue me.” “Ghost” then takes that redemption and transitions into an exorcism of the past, as he pleads overtop of legato piano, “Ghost/ Leap from my heart/ Leap from my heart and find your way.” These first three songs prove to be the darker portion of Swanlights; they are the cleansing before the liberation that follows.

This time, Hegarty focuses on themes of love and renewed joy. “I’m In Love,” with its swirling synth and stand-up bass, is a dizzying ode to lasting, powerful emotion. The singer admits he’s “been walking for a long time,” but finds salvation in another, recognizing that his “dreams/ they all came true/ The day I lay my head on you.” This lyrical exuberance is nothing new in the realm of pop music, but for Hegarty, this is mostly unexplored territory. The real joy of Swanlights is exploring these emotions alongside the musician, as each previously unfamiliar corner is mapped out with refreshing enthusiasm shared by both the artist and his listeners.

“Fletta,” a duet with Bjork that is bound to get the most media/blog attention, is a hauntingly gorgeous track highlighted by piano and dual vocals that move seamlessly between shimmering stillness and jaunting fragility. “Salt Silver Oxygen” – a track that best displays the overall renewed delight of Swanlights – shows Antony’s voice as light and burden-free, fluttering along with the aspirant strings and flutes.

Swanlights is a stunning and dazzling exploration of the lighter side of life. The musician rids himself of past demons, instead following a path of childlike naiveté, reveling in moments of inspired love and natural beauty. The album shows the artist playing with musical space, using quiet moments to instill emotional hesitation, only to quickly move in a hopeful direction with swelling string arrangements and repetitive piano riffs, best exemplified on album closer “Christina’s Farm.” These subtle nuances afford multiple listens, as each track can be interpreted in numerous ways and from numerous perspectives. A musically and emotionally complex work that expertly balances melancholy with an air of light-hearted freedom, Swanlights may not surpass The Crying Light, but it is still Antony Hegarty at his finest, creating intricate stories of genuine, raw emotion.

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