Antony Hegarty evokes a kind of personal religion for some of his fans, whether they’re drawn to him because of his androgyny, his vocal cords, or his relentless devotion to the pursuit of true beauty in his art. I’ve had friends who talk about seizing up when they see him in concert and trade interpretations of I Am A Bird Now like Pokemon cards. I came into Thank You For Your Love, a five-song precursor to the upcoming Swanlights, with an appreciation for what he does but not the slavish devotion he can sometimes inspire. It’s why I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening song, “Thank You For Your Love,” a jazzy number in which Hegarty thanks someone. A lot. No matter how much pomp and sustenance he can inject into a repeating line like “I thank you” over and over, it awkwardly straddles the line between powerfully assured spiritual release and pulic-access generic gospel. And even if you buy into Hegarty, the limpid “You Are The Treasure” (sample lyric: “You are forever/ You are my friend”) seems typically frail, regardless of whatever vocal flourishes he adds to the melody.
But “My Lord My Love,” a bonus track on last year’s The Crying Game, is the majestic standout and justifies the EP’s entire existence. Hegarty quivers over a somber piano melody with lines like “When we were children in the hay/ We felt your eyes were upon us” and, man, Hegarty must have some serious religious/paternal issues to sort out, right? Or maybe he’s playing to the image he’s slowly cultivated for himself over the last few years, Madonna in robes, sitting at the organ chapel, raising his voice to God.
And my God, that voice! What religion can’t you find in the shaking climax when Hegarty moans “Take care of the ones you say you love,” scripture for indie kids looking for truth in their music, not a fashion statement? I suppose you have to poke around Antony’s material until the image or music clicks together, but when it does it’s simply divine. You can roll your eyes and get back to more visceral material (something with distortion!), but Hegarty is trying, really trying, to get something out not through clever lyrics or catchy hooks, but through orchestral faith, the kind where you let go whatever cynicism you have about this mass of work. Van Morrison summoned the same effect though he probably needed a lot more whiskey to do it. And Antony probably never wanted to join the clergy as a kid, but a song like this does all the work.
It’s almost a shame that such a killer track is followed by two milquetoast covers of Bob Dylan’s “Pressing On” (a song from his born-again Christian era and one so irrelevant the only hit on YouTube is John Doe’s infinitely more soulful cover from the 2007 Dylan biopic I’m Not There) and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which quite simply should never be played again except on televised charity specials. Antony does away with the original’s ascending piano lilt, moping up the lyrics behind a sparse acoustic guitar arrangement. The result is darker than Lennon’s compassionate optimism, and it’s certainly “interesting” that Hegarty follows up four semi-religious songs with a song that literally says “Imagine there’s no religion,” but it’s a little too precious if you don’t already worship at his hefty altar of emotion. It’s a ho-hum ending, but hey, when he hits the mark he really hits it, and Thank You For You Love’s got more spirit in spurts than midnight Mass.