Tuesday 9 November 2010

Review: Swanlights (2010) by Antony and the Johnsons

I vividly remember first discovering the music of Antony & the Johnsons on a trip from York back to London several years ago. Listening to the band’s first album on repeat during that four hour journey was a spell-binding experience. I found the record funny, disturbing, sexy, surreal, familiar and mysterious all at once. It remains one of my favourite albums of all time, a totally unique and energising melding of torch song, sooul, gospel and cabaret, filtered through the New York avant-garde and crowned by Antony’s endlessly arresting, Nina Simone-meets-Bryan-Ferry vocals. I felt much the same way about the group’s second album, I Am A Bird Now, which went on to win the Mercury Prize in 2005. The momentum and interest generated by that win saw Antony become everyone’s favourite guest vocalist and he appeared (with varying degrees of effectiveness) on albums by artists including Rufus Wainwright, Bjork, Linda Thompson, Marianne Faithfull, and Hercules and Love Affair over the next couple of years. The band didn’t get around to releasing a new album of their own until the beginning of 2009, when The Crying Light appeared.

Despite great moments, The Crying Light never really came together for me. Patchily written and rather precious, lacking the sharper lyrical edges and theatricality of the previous records, the album seemed a step back for the group. (You can read my thoughts on it here.) For this reason, perhaps, I didn’t dash out to buy Swanlights, the group’s new release which has been around for a month or so now. Having finally got around to listening to it, I’m happy to report that, though very far from a complete success, the record at least represents something of a partial return to form.

Containing just 10 tracks (one of which, “Violetta,” is just a few seconds of instrumental noodling that doesn’t really merit an individual listing), Swanlights sticks to the A & the Js format of lean-and-mean, no-fat studio albums. At 45 minutes it's actually the group's longest release yet, but it still feels slight, particularly as a few of the tracks here - the leaden, repetitious first single “Thank You For Your Love,” the sadly doggerel-heavy "The Great White Ocean,” which demonstrates little except that Antony’s songs gain from murky diction - are under par. But what’s good here is very good - atmospheric, well arranged - and I’m especially pleased to hear Antony take a few more vocal risks again after his mostly restrained performances on The Crying Light, moving beyond sombre reflection and rousing himself to anger and elation at various points. From the breathy, appropriately hesitant delivery on the opening “Everything is New” (that builds to fine cries of agony-or-ecstasy as the song progresses) to the gorgeous full-bodiedness of the closing “Christina’s Farm” there are moments of magisterial beauty on this record. The London Symphony Orchestra bring grandeur to the urgent  “Ghost,” while the stunning "Swanlights" finds a double-tracked Antony delivering the album’s most interesting lyrics against a taut, brooding backdrop of electric guitar, piano and strings. “The Spirit Was Gone” must be one of the starkest  most direct confrontations with mortality ever put on record, and though it’s too short Antony’s performance could hardly be bettered, particularly his understated delivery on the refrain “It’s hard to understand.” What you make of the spare "Flétta" will depend on how much you enjoy the sound of Antony and Björk's voices together (and I don’t, really) but the song - written entirely in Icelandic - has its merits, and the roll of Björk's “rs” is quite sublime.

The track I keep returning to most, though, is “Christina’s Farm,” a song that Antony’s performed live over the past couple of years and which I’m delighted to find on a record at last. Haunting, dramatic, a slow-burner, the song delivers the “tender renewal” that its lyrics repeatedly evoke. It’s a superb piece of work, and a great ending to the record. I’d still like to hear more playfulness and exuberance on an Antony & the Johnsons album again - and a dash of humour wouldn’t go amiss, either. But at its best Swanlights cuts deep.

Here’s Antony tackling the title track solo. "Lean /On the Swanlight song."

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