Listening to Antony & the Johnsons reminds me of my first time hearing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. At the time, my popular music tastes tended to be dense. Whether it was Public Enemy or the Descendents, I sought music that filled every nook and cranny of space. Your Funeral … My Trial was a remarkable contrast because it filled the air with a patient sense of drama and an abundance of tension instead of a whirlwind of drums or guitars. What I’ve appreciated about Antony Hegarty’s music has been its comparable appreciation of negative space and theatrics.
Yet Antony Hegarty is also no Nick Cave. Whereas Cave flips familiar music forms to dramatize emotions, Hegarty emotes directly with fewer formalist concerns. Perhaps because such frankness is a rarity, Hegarty’s approach often gets reduced to superficial outsider-isms, like “androgynous features,” “transcendental emotion” and “childlike wonder.” It is better described as a blend of gender perspectives, a mainline of feelings and an acute awareness of its surroundings. Or, in other words: s/he raw. On the band’s fourth album, Swanlights, Hegarty dives deeper into his psyche to uncover increasingly curious musical ideas and precious jewels of sentiment.
The openness to sensation that has characterized her/his persona is a through-line of the album. Hegarty opens and closes with the ideas, “Everything is new” and “Everything was new,” as if to invite everything in. These lines are repeated like mantras, as if to presage the opening of a dam. The music that follows rushes over with an abundance of nature images and relationship ideas (“The Great White Ocean”). Most of the album interprets feelings as musical textures. He sharply cautions “Do not stay” over buoyant strings in the optimistic “Ghost.” Later, his confusion, “It’s such a mystery to me,” drifts gradually into a swamp of thick guitars in the title track. There are a handful of anthemic moments, such as the cabaret-worthy “I’m In Love” and the slow burn (spoiler alert) Stax-worthy ending of “Thank You For Your Love.” But most of Swanlights drifts with the current from one feeling to the next.
The album moves aimlessly at times, but such imperfection matches human irrationality. “The Spirit Was Gone” provides a not necessary counterpoint to “Ghost,” but at three minutes and change it hardly wears out its welcome. The much-discussed duet with Björk is tasteful — their voices blend in a most simpatico manner — but the backstory is more elaborate and touching than the outcome (the track is evidently an edit job with Björk singing “gibberish Icelandic” and Hegarty overdubbing different harmonies after the fact; the full story is here). That said, such comments are relative. Hegarty covers a lot of ground and carefully arranges each song to extract the nugget of each emotion. Swanlights may not be the best of his works, but it is a welcome excursion along the path of his career.