Antony & The Johnsons Antony & The JohnsonsSwanlights
Let’s play a little game. Guess which of the following quotes are from a “Swanlights” track: “Is death the last sleep? No, it is the last and final awakening”, “Swim with me my mama when I dive in the ocean of death. I will cry if I am not with my family”, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me”, “Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day”… Tough one, isn’t it? If anyone guessed the words aimed at the mother of the poet, they can come and pick up their medal. The other quotes belong to Walter Scott, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, respectively. A list of romantic names that prove that, possessing so many similarities with the artist we’re talking about, Antony Hegarty’s thing could last. It was too beautiful. Literally.
In these (literary, musical) times, the romantic is something less valued in comparison with indifference, irony, and superficiality as a weapon against emotional damage. With things being that way, the lukewarm reviews of his previous effort made it clear that temporariness at the top would be the final destiny of someone like Hegarty who, from the start of his career, has ignored the constants of the sarcastic post-modernity and has exposed the inner world of a transgender little boy in the body of a death-obsessed adult to all who wanted to listen. Antony’s songs have always talked about the threshold of pain as a vital methodology, about the sentimental ties that squeeze and leave bruises below the skin as an infallible tool to feel life and escape from the shadow of death. In that aspect, “Swanlights” is probably the album that best synthesises in its lyrics the act of lifting the last veil and looking death directly in the eyes brandishing a shield of love. As sentimental as that. As simple as that. As effective as that.
Curiously, the first songs of “Swanlights” slide under each other: “ Everything Is New” opens the album with a very clear declaration of intent (“ I cried everything. Everything is new”) that proves that Hegarty wants to start a new episode in his discography: after minimising the delicious melodramatic excess of “I’m A Bird Now” (2005), his debut “Antony & The Johnsons” (2000) and “The Crying Light” (2009), now it’s time to look for new ways, new exits. And although the piano and violins in crescendo aren’t new at all, the new feeling free with which the instruments on the track implode in a climax, helped by meagre percussion, is new. Like we said, the opening track hasn’t faded out yet when “ The Great White Ocean” starts (from where the quote in the intro of this review is taken), taking up the same identifying torch song marks reduced to the minimum: a Spanish guitar and humming strings provide the soft mattress for the most disarming lyric of the album. And, again, a long and slow fade-out.
From then on, “Swanlights” turns into a lab for sonic experiments with multiple searches. The old ways receive new lighting, following different methods: “ Ghost” hugs Antony’s already known drama in order to slip into his proven love of reciting poetry set to music; “ Thank You For Your Love”, the addictive first single, heads off “ Fistful Of Love”, with which it shares an orchestral explosiveness without the need to carry that song’s sado-masochistic weight; and above all, “ The Spirit Was Gone” starts from a not-at-all minimal minimum (piano, violin and voice) to rise as the supreme ballad with which Hegarty exalts that image with which he himself has defined that album that pretends to capture " the moment when a spirit jumps out of a body and turns into a violet ghost.’’. Back to romanticism.
At times, Antony moves away from the beaten path and explores new, virgin territories: “ I’m In Love” starts with an organ somewhere between pastoral folk and soft-psych darkness which sounds like a sixties soundtrack for a summer night’s dream; “ Fletta”, his collaboration with Björk (although it’s more a tune written for the Icelandic songstress), oscillates between the crystalline opacity of Satie’s piano and the (ambiguous) optimism of Copland in a one-man orchestra version; while “ Salt Silver Oxygen” subscribes to the nautical trombones of the same Björk of “Volta” (2007) and even the score of Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005).
But where “Swanlights” shines especially brightly is on it’s two breaks with the concrete material of the world, in order to incur in a symphonic digression that goes from Michael Nyman to Philip Glass (as we assume via the latter’s disciple Nico Muhly, also a collaborator of Antony’s). The album’s title track seems to oscillate between John Fahey’s coelacanths and Current 93’s doom-folk when it comes to (halfway through the record) acting as a black hole ready to gobble up it’s surroundings. The exceptional ending, with “ Christina’s Farm”, starts slowly and grows, little by little, like a waking giant with a desperate orchestra in it’s stomach. In fact, during this final piece of “Swanlights”, Hegarty sings the words “ everything is new” again, like a sleepy snake biting it’s tale, the start of the album. However, this fourth effort of Antony & The Johnsons doesn’t sound like a closed circle, though there is a sense that, as on the first songs, it will gain it’s full significance when it stealthily slides under the artist’s next album, where the possibilities explored here will have to be materialised in homogeneous achievements. Let’s hope that by then there will still be people who care about romanticism, because the spectacle could be more impressive than a storm described by Scott, Shelley or Byron. Raül De Tena