Antony And The Johnsons: Swanlights

Antony And The Johnsons: Swanlights

Breaking from the black-and-white austerity of its predecessors, Swanlights’ cover offers a blob of formless watercolor, suggesting that Antony’s fourth album of emotive chamber-pop intends to let a little sun in on his usual shades-drawn rumination. Of course, this is still Antony, glum king of mellifluous melancholia: He’s described “swanlights” as “the moment when a spirit jumps out of the body and turns into a violet ghost,” so he’s still more than a little obsessed with death. But here, he sounds positively enlivened by it, with the result being his loosest, most rapturous album yet.

The opener, “Everything Is New,” revolves around an impulsive mantra full of first-blush wonder, echoed in “I’m In Love” and its unabashed sap about “kissing like hummingbirds” over a giddy, punch-drunk Wurlitzer. Flecked by shiny soul-revue brass, “Thank You For Your Love” finds Antony treading a thin line between devotion and desperation, sounding by turns invigorated and frantic. “The Great White Ocean” unfolds its bucolic afterlife lullaby over lilting acoustic guitar; “Salt Silver Oxygen” revisits the same dust-to-dust metaphors more cloyingly, with Antony singing a falsetto paean to “the salt mother” over flute pirouettes.

But Antony’s voice, a warbling echo of Nina Simone’s soulful theatricality and Arthur Russell’s spooked vulnerability, retains its bewitching melodrama, and it keeps Swanlights’ beatific musings from turning completely saccharine. The starker the surroundings, the better: The title track sets his eerie quaver against deeply reverberating chords of distortion, while “Fletta” finds him chasing Björk’s dizzying Icelandic intonations across a zigzag piano line. Even when Swanlights doesn’t always take corporeal form—that looseness also means several of its melodies simply fade into the shadows—Antony’s voice remains a spectral wonder.

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