Five years and one month ago, Antony & the Johnsons were the surprise victors of the 2005 Mercury Prize. No one had seen it coming. But their unique, anti-mainstream, blend of odd baroque, soul and contemporary jazz was now the talk of the town and their triumphant masterpiece I Am A Bird Now subsequently moved into the top 20 of the album chart.
Now on their fourth full-length release, nothing much has changed. Antony Hegarty’s swooning vocals, poignant lyrics and themes of love, longing and debasement still emanate throughout. Their new songs are equally heartfelt, occasionally overwrought. The singer’s wailing entwined with chilling piano and eerie strings (courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra) haunt the listener. Particularly in ‘The Spirit Was Gone’, in which Hegarty repeats the song title for effect. This isn’t music for the easily disturbed, this is still music sung by the sincerest, most evocative lyricist in the world, music that could have reduced Al Capone to tears.
It has to be said that there is one significant stylistic change on the new record – the sharp contrast in tempo and atmosphere created between songs. After the quiet, aforementioned song we are immediately hit with ‘Thank You For Your Love’, the most pop Antony & The Johnsons song to date. The cabaret-esque chorus with its dominating rhythm section of percussion, tuba and horns is infectious. The climacting end is marvellously rock n roll, something I never would have expected from any Hegarty release. This, along with ‘I’m In Love’, really brings to light the soul influence on his work.
Reminiscent of the avant-garde group’s previous efforts, there is another high-profile collaboration on Swanlights. It is in fact the brilliant Bjork who guests, adding to their lengthy list of previous star collaborators which includes Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull and Rufus Wainwright. Out of these, the former The Sugarcubes singer is actually the most apt for the role; her tender voice fits ‘Flètta’ like a key in a lock. Hegarty takes a minimal role in the relatively short song, which is performed in Bjork’s native Icelandic. The end result is a beautiful song which, due to the substitution of her usual signature synths for Hegarty’s howls and simple piano, sounds more like a Sigur Ròs or Ólöf Arnalds song than anything she has ever recorded herself. It reveals a natural beauty in Bjork’s voice we have never seen before.
So, Swanlights’ intricate balladry is fantastic. The album as a whole entity is not in any way new or revolutionary (unlike I Am A Bird Now) but the way in which they have fused tender ambience with upbeat soul songsmithery, while still making sure Hegarty’s raw emotions retain their clarity, is something for which they should be applauded. An emotional ending with ‘Christina’s Farm’ is a perfect end to a perfectly acceptable record.
From Huw Oliver.