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Antony and the Johnsons Swanlights Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

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. But such is the gravitas at his command, it sometimes feels like everything he touches is imbued with a melancholy that can prove heavy-going. Follow-up The Crying Light was impressive, sure, but preoccupied by struggle – our impact on the environment, rifts in equality – it was a sombre, reflective work.

Swanlights succeeds exactly where you might not expect it to: Hegarty sounds content, revitalised. This is a record that revels in a sense of joy. Everything Is New opens proceedings, a sparse piano number that gradually builds into a full-bodied declaration of wonder. Following that is The Great White Ocean, a paean to family and human connection. Like an old folk song espousing unity, it is gorgeous; sad, but of a light touch and deceptive breeziness.

Which isn’t to say that Swanlights lacks in heft. Rather, it is warming to hear Hegarty sing so unencumbered by his demons, and the record is at its best when he is at his most transparent. Thank You for Your Love is a soulful, uncomplicated affair, which accelerates into urgent, expressive climax: "When I was lost in the darkness," Hegarty posits, "thank you for your love." I’m in Love is similarly joyous in nature, beautifully arranged strings and woodwind bolstering the central sentiment.

It’s not a unanimously bright affair, however. Björk’s guest spot on Flétta grants the two singers ample space to deliver something elemental, while the title-track is fantastically spooky – droning guitar lines, backwards vocals and all (Hegarty has referred to ‘swanlights’ as "the moment when a spirit jumps out of a body and turns into a violet ghost").

Still, I’d wager the kind of ghosts Hegarty seems concerned with here are of the friendly variety: impressions of lovers, friends, mentors; something to embrace rather than feel cowed by. While Swanlights ends on a note of uncertainty, it is one born out of deep ardour: acknowledgement that what we have here is precious, and ultimately worth celebrating.

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