Saturday, November 20, 2010

Swanlights - Antony & the Johnsons


Antony & the Johnsons
Secretly Canadian Records.

SCQ Rating: 88%

During his interviews promoting The Crying Light last year, Antony Hegarty admitted his approach to the studio process wasn’t nearly as accomplished as his live approach, and that he was hoping to better translate his recorded work. Such a humble stance on his previous albums comes as an obvious surprise to anyone who has heard the brilliant I Am a Bird Now or The Crying Light, but those perceived shortcomings actually gather some veracity over the adventurous bent of Swanlights, a record that wipes clean Hegarty’s conflicts with identity, if not the environment around him.

Inner peace aside, Swanlights doesn’t quite fill the shadows of the group's Mercury Prize-winning 2005 effort but the stakes here aren’t nearly as dramatic to begin with. Hegarty has fully embraced the romantic side that flourished up on The Crying Light (think ‘Kiss My Name’) but placates those convictions beneath challenging song-structures. No longer do Antony and the Johnsons’ songs line up as stoic pillars, either chocked-full or drained thin of emotion like the sharp contrast of their records’ black and white cover-art. Tracks like ‘I’m In Love’, with its oscillating organ, and ‘The Great White Ocean’ purposefully lack centers, choosing instead to unfurl without the pressure to build up or break down in linear fashion. Match this patient plateau of a template with some of the band’s most technicolor arrangements to date, and Swanlights offers a clean break from the melodrama of the band’s past efforts.

Hegarty admits as much on ‘Everything Is New’, a soft ensemble of piano, strings and cymbals that collectively paint the repeated phrase of its title as both wondrous and anxiety-ridden. The orchestration (assisted in part by Nico Muhly) roams freely over Swanlights, at times bleeding through song-boundaries and reducing individual tracks into a succession of ebbs and flows. ‘Violetta’, although a mere thirty-six seconds long, preludes the experimental title track well, whereas ‘Salt Silver Oxygen’ and ‘Christina’s Farm’ couple into a beautifully brooding finale. Only single ‘Thank You For Your Love’ circles back to Hegarty’s austere back catalog, yet even it feels imbued with its share of bliss. Having escaped the chiaroscuro shades of more troubling times, Hegarty has mastered the studio process with Swanlights, offering a bountiful palette where everything is, if not entirely new, certainly in bloom.

Antony & The Johnsons - Salt silver oxygen by isaidahip

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