Release Date: Oct 12, 2010
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Vocal, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Art Rock, Chamber Pop, Cabaret
Although it is rarely acknowledged, the music of Antony and the Johnsons has a definite precursor in the 80s NYC art scene responsible for elevating drag to high art. By combining the genderfuck antics of figures like David Bowie with an earlier cultural current drawn from Weimar Berlin, New York City drag queens in this era were expected to have abilities beyond wardrobe and lipsync. A performance could be campy and outrageous or involve self-conscious situationist antics, but it would often culminate with a serious moment of disarming beauty, such as Joey Arias’ haunting evocations of Billie Holiday or Klaus Nomi’s pitch-perfect renderings of Wagner operas.
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 ….
Antony Hegarty is an odd duck. His curious appearance, hulking and androgynous, gives way to even more curious music—darkly beautiful orchestral pieces suspended somewhere between the theatre and the cathedral. Trapped in a perpetual state of emotional vulnerability, his obsession with the environment in 2009’s The Crying Light has transitioned into Swanlight’s explorations of life and death.
Antony Hegarty’s peculiar, tremolo voice has always carried a love-it-or-hate-it dynamic, with even those who eventually come to adore his operatic affectations often taken aback at first listen by Hegarty’s antiquated vocal styling and unexpected, unapologetically feminine tone. And yet, there’s also a self-deprecating charm and wit about his art: One imagines that, if Oscar Wilde were alive today, possessed a singing voice, and formed a band, he would be doing exactly what Hegarty is doing as the frontman of Antony and the Johnsons. The group’s latest, Swanlights, is more art installation than rock record, accompanied by a massive art book that further serves as Antony’s sweeping canvas.
On 2005’s I Am a Bird Now, the terrific album by New York City-based Antony and the Johnsons, Antony Hegarty’s voice sounded deeply, almost frighteningly, intimate. It was like a pair of arms that stretched out to embrace everyone within reach, but were wrapped tightly enough to feel a bit uncomfortable. His vibrato warbled some, but mostly shook fiercely, and the sound was otherworldly.
Antony Hegarty ended Thank You for Your Love, the EP that preceded his fourth LP, Swanlights, with a pair of covers-- "Pressing On" by Bob Dylan, and "Imagine" by John Lennon. Written during Dylan's punchline-prone Christian era, "Pressing On" is notable for its cutting, lucid assessment of the human condition in the second verse: "Temptation's not an easy thing/ Adam given the devil reign/ Because he sinned I got no choice/ It run in my vein. " Antony handles those words with weepy verve, as though the realization of his doom is as strangely liberating as it is terrifying.
Essentially what a CD booklet always wanted to be when it grew up, [b]Anthony Hegarty[/b]’s fourth album comes encased in a large hard-backed book of his cut’n’paste surrealist collages which cries ‘THIS IS ART!’ as loud and proud as any amount of affected he/she warbling. Thankfully, the album slipped into this HMV shelf-stacker’s worst nightmare largely justifies such grand pretensions. For every ‘[b]Everything Is New[/b]’ – a looping chamber quartet refrain of the title that’s as artful and pointless as [a]Radiohead[/a]’s ‘[b]Everything In Its Right Place[/b]’ – there’s a direct and devastating ode to death like ‘[b]The Great White Ocean[/b]’.
Antony Hegarty has only amassed a slim discography in his 12-year stint in the musical spotlight with Antony and the Johnsons, but the emotional gravitas of that work casts a long shadow over anything that follows it. His 2009 album, The Crying Light, was an invigorating intertwining of gender politics and environmental themes, but Antony has made the step of broadening his pallet this time, ultimately producing a less concept-heavy set of songs. Familiar themes still surface, with the natural world continuing to loom large in Antony’s conscience, but much of Swanlights is ambiguous and less easy to decipher.
At Antony and the Johnsons' most recent Toronto concert - February 2009 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre - Antony Hegarty revealed his lighter side, enlivening the set with off-the-cuff anecdotes during the spaces between his heart-wrenching piano ballads. Turns out, the bruised, androgynous, master translator of his inner pain into dramatic song is hilarious. [rssbreak] While his fourth album is no Punch & Judy show, lead single Thank You For Your Love is all gratitude-filled lyrics and celebratory horns, I'm In Love gets more rhythmically experimental than usual, and an "everything is new" mantra optimistically begins and ends the LP.
The fourth Antony and the Johnsons album is more diverse and positive than 2008's The Crying Light, with familiar concerns of death and alienation broadening into family, human bonds, and the joys of love. The most striking development is the way he's using his voice as a musical texture in the mould of This Mortal Coil's version of Tim Buckley's Song to the Siren. Swanlights is more esoteric than previous works, and contains some stunning music in the beautiful The Great White Ocean and minimally haunting The Spirit Was Gone.
Although we’ve come to know him as a modern workhorse, Antony Hegarty has always been able to keep his work with the Johnsons that much more invigorating. Whether he’s remixed mainstream artists or assisted on electronic records, albums like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light were always adorned with particular touches you couldn’t find elsewhere. So it’s suitably fitting for Hegarty, now his fourth album, to release what just might be his most challenging album to date with Swanlights.
It is warming to hear Hegarty sing so unencumbered by his demons. James Skinner 2010 Being blessed with a singing voice as unique and enchanting as that of Antony Hegarty’s must be something of a gift and a curse. On the one side, the emotion he is able to summon via his vocal cords is palpable, intense, brilliant; his 2005 breakthrough I Am a Bird Now hit like a sucker-punch, devastating in its contemplation of identity and personal freedom.