ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: SWANLIGHTS (2010)
1) Everything Is New; 2) The Great White Ocean; 3) Ghost; 4) I'm In Love; 5) Violetta; 6) Swanlights; 7) The Spirit Was Gone; 8) Thank You For Your Love; 9) Fletta; 10) Salt Silver Oxygen; 11) Christina's Farm.
He almost did switch to visual installations: accompanying the album, Antony has also produced a 144-page art book — beautiful, expressive, pretentious, and bound to be forgotten as soon as the next Antony takes over the crown of this particular fiefdom. But there is also the small matter of this fourth album, which does exist, even if it is not quite clear if it is the music that is the supporting companion to the visual arts or vice versa.
"Every everything, everything is new", the man wobbles during the opening twenty seconds, enough to make you understand that nothing is actually new, and thus, present a jarring paradox from the very start. Once again, morose piano ballads with either minimalistic, or lush strings-adorned arrangements, are the word of the day; occasional acoustic guitar backing, brass fanfares, and gentle woodwinds only reinforce the general rule. Trying to assert some sort of individuality for Swanlights is futile. All that is left is just to see if you can enjoy the music.
And I believe that it can be easily done, indeed. Perhaps there is one good general observation about Swanlights that can be made: as to what concerns my personal experience, the album has revealed itself to be much less «annoying» than its predecessors. No intelligent person can have a problem with Antony Hegarty's disdain for the ugly trashy world in which we all live, and for his deep-running desire to escape it if he cannot change it; but lots of people, myself included, can have a problem with the theatrical manner in which he expresses that desire — I mean, does one really escape the cynicism and cruelty of life by putting on layers of makeup?..
Swanlights, if only a little bit, but a little bit that I seem to have felt, tones down that theatricality. As it often happens, the toning down begins with the album sleeve: where we once saw creepy hallowed figures and photos of near-alien Japanese artists, we now see a mortally wounded polar bear (and 'Swanlights', for that matter, is his name). Pain, suffering, isolation, empathy, and ecological concern — all in one, but with a little bit of gritty reality thrown in, too. The same is with the music: a little smoother, a little quieter, a little less overtly manneristic, yet never ever betraying Antony's essential schtick.
The very idea of Antony doing a duet with Björk, especially at this time in her career, when the «nutty» streak in her brain seems to have infected most of the sane cells, could easily trigger a bathroom response from those who have their feet firmly planted on the ground. No reason to be alarmed: 'Flétta' ("lichen" in Icelandic) is a restrained, humbly-pretty duet that will be appreciated not so much for its melody (which is about as instantly memorable as, say, an average Liszt piano prelude) as for the delicate weaving of two of the most individual singing styles of the past two decades. The piano playing is Hegarty-style, the vocal flourishes Björk-style, and the two mesh together real well without trying to outdo each other in purely technical terms.
The title track is also a relative standout: for about six minutes, the regular pianos disappear, replaced by a bleak apocalyptic nightmare with Eastern/psychedelic overtones, as Hegarty vocalizes on the pentatonic scale to jarring blasts of feedback and all sorts of analog and digital noise. This is his first attempt at immersing himself into a gentleness-free atmosphere, as if to show us what can happen when the lonesome hero finds himself flung out of his little room at the top of his ivory tower and thrust into the world. Is there any difference between the lights of Broadway and the North Pole? Not for Mr. Hegarty, no.
Another highlight is 'Thank You For Your Love', which can be seen as either an original twist on the modern romantic ballad, or even as a cunning send-up; beginning quite generically, it eventually reaches a point at which Hegarty locks himself up in a never-ending loop of "thank you, thank you, thank you"s which, as some astute reviewer has noticed, start sounding more like a "please please" — clearly, he is begging for something he has not yet received rather than simply showing his gratitude in such an obnoxious way. It is at least an intriguing development, and at most, it's just plain funny, even if that may not have been the original intention.
And overall, most of the time his minimalistic melodies work. 'Everything Is New' and 'The Spirit Was Gone' are delicate piano pieces; the strings, woodwinds, and chimes on 'Salt Silver Oxygen' interact in a beautiful baroque-tinged manner; 'The Great White Ocean' is a near-gorgeous folk ballad; and even though I am not quite sure why the laconic, Eno-ish piano phrase of 'Christina's Farm' had to be prolonged for seven minutes, that does not make it any less touching, per se.
One thing you definitely cannot blame on Hegarty is lack of attention to detail and manner; some of these numbers will pull your strings, others won't, but not a single one can be accused of not having tried to the utmost. Maybe he is a poseur, but he's definitely a worker, and Swanlights convinces me that, provided he goes on working as hard, he might have a couple dozen more albums like this one in him. Thumbs up for mope rock's upcoming AC/DC.
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