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Album review: Antony and the Johnsons' 'Swanlights'

October 12, 2010 |  2:33 pm

Antony In the 144-page book of his collages and paintings that Antony Hegarty put out as a companion to “Swanlights,” there’s an illustration of a bloodied polar bear. The accompanying text tells how the bear was shot in the heart but then ran across the ice for 200 yards before collapsing to his death. The startling image clearly connected with the vanguard artist-musician, who also put the creature on the album’s cover.

With a voice that embodies both life’s fragility and something as towering as that great white bear, Hegarty has carved his own luminous path. He communes with the sacred and majestic in life, often against a backdrop of pain and suffering, and with the natural world as his most charged landscape. On the twinkling “Swanlights,” the fourth studio album he’s made with his classically attuned band, working in a more stylistically abundant form here than last year’s “The Crying Light,” he captures the otherworldly more often than not. Occasionally, though, the songs overreach or miss some central point.

In the best moments on “Swanlights,” the sacred and the suffering are merely different shades of the same verdant world. On “Everything Is New,” a standard in his live shows, Hegarty -- sometimes sounding brave, sometimes frightened -- encapsulates the violence and wonder of birth or rebirth. The racing piano and clustered strings (arranged by acclaimed young composer Nico Muhly and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra) of “Ghost” sets up a rewarding urgency that folds in on itself as much as it advances. The rapturous “Flétta,” his Icelandic duet with kindred swan Bjork, is a suspension bridge between contemplation and joviality.

On “Salt Silver Oxygen,” Hegarty offers fascinating concepts (“dancing with his casket, Christ becomes a wife”) but the song’s glittering bluster never quite unlocks. “Thank You for Your Love” is much more direct but it pushes close to easy sentimentality with its oft-repeated title, albeit embedded in some first-rate, Stax-style soul. Not to discourage Hegarty from expressing a little unfettered joy, of course, but so few have his gift for evoking many shades of emotion. When he’s working in one mode, the listener can’t help but miss all that could’ve been.

--Margaret Wappler

Antony and the Johnsons
“Swanlights”
Secretly Canadian
Three stars

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