On 2005’s I Am a Bird Now, the terrific album by New York City-based Antony and the Johnsons, Antony Hegarty’s voice sounded deeply, almost frighteningly, intimate. It was like a pair of arms that stretched out to embrace everyone within reach, but were wrapped tightly enough to feel a bit uncomfortable. His vibrato warbled some, but mostly shook fiercely, and the sound was otherworldly. I Am a Bird Now was an introspective affair, a mirror we held up to ourselves, where we were forced to confront why these songs could make us feel both inspired and unsettled. Antony recognized that his gender identity could provoke the same feelings in people (though he’s often described as transgender, he views himself more as androgynous, as moving freely along the continuum between masculinity and femininity). But he also knows that if we’re patient, we might find that ambiguity is beauty.
On the ensemble’s follow-up, The Crying Light, commentary on gender diversity made room for ruminations on the earth’s slowly disappearing biodiversity. Stripping away much of the instrumentation that anchored the singer’s voice on I Am a Bird Now, and sounding like he had never been more alone, Antony this time held a mirror up to himself. And what he saw was his own place in an environment that was suffering and slowly receding from view. In an interview he commented on the album’s central theme: “Intuitively we are a child of our environment, and we are as sensitive as an amphibian to the water it sits in.” While challenging, listeners who gave the album some time were rewarded with Antony’s creative vision of how human identities extend beyond our own bodies and into the world around us.
Antony calls his ensemble’s new LP, Swanlights, a companion piece to The Crying Light. While Swanlights shares its predecessor’s themes, it shuns its insularity, with Antony stretching his arms across a vast landscape. (You can also get the album with a 144-page hardcover book featuring Antony’s personal writing and artwork, which explores these themes.) On the album’s 11 tracks, Antony continues his musings on our place in the natural world, with his lyrics reading like postcard tales from an imaginary, exotic vacation spot: snakes shed their skin, turtle doves offer kisses, red corrals caress, ghosts taste rivers and chase sunrises, people dive and swim in a great ocean. On Swanlights, Antony takes a cue from Hamlet: the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to nature. Reality is reflected back in art, and in the same way, humans suffer because the environment suffers. It would be hokey if it weren’t so timely, as natural disasters seem to devastate populations around the world with alarming frequency. The natural world is a perfect muse for Antony because it reflects the artist’s own sensibilities: it inspires and unsettles us.
So, naturally, the album starts in an unsettling place. Antony opens with the pronouncement “every, everything”, and after a long pause he speaks the line, “everything is new”. It’s a rare moment where Antony’s voice lacks vibrato, the theatrics stripped away to reveal the singer-songwriter at his most bare. After the piano gallop of third track “Ghost”, the album turns to “I’m in Love”, a good example of the musical turn the ensemble has taken since I Am a Bird Now. Violins turn figure 8s around the stomp of a stand-up bass, a simple keyboard melody, and an oboe that falls from the sky, as if on cue, just as Antony completes the phrase, “I kiss you like a hummingbird”. It’s also Antony at his most soulful, with his voice stretched and pulled at the end of each phrase, and marked with deep shades of his musical inspiration, Nina Simone. The orchestral influence is undeniable, a sign of how touring with orchestras across Europe in 2009 had shaped Antony as a musician. Penultimate track “Salt Silver Oxygen” is also a packed orchestra pit, with Antony patching together a strange religious narrative. “Dancing with his casket, Christ becomes a wife”, he sings, while beneath him menacing trombones point the way towards some doom that Antony sees but we can only imagine.
“Thank You for Your Love” and “Flétta” are standouts on the album’s second half. The first neatly echoes the lounge jazz of “Fistful of Love” off I Am a Bird Now, with a rousing horn section backing Antony’s repeated cries of “I thank you”. (The captivating video for the song [below] includes footage of the baby-faced singer after he had arrived in New York City in 1990 to begin theater school.) Björk, the rare vocalist capable of stealing some of the spotlight away from Antony, helps to give “Flétta” (Icelandic for “braid”) a warm but disarming feeling. The song has an appropriately abrupt ending. “Christina’s Farm” closes the album by reintroducing the line “everything is new” from the opening track, and then reshapes it into the album’s final decree that all should be “tenderly renewed”. A gorgeous seven-and-a-half minute exhale, Antony sounds like he’s finally on solid footing: a few piano notes eventually find their way towards resolution, with the final chord in unison with Antony’s hum. It’s an unmistakable moment, and it’s as comfortable as Swanlights will let you feel. It’s a testament to the record, and Antony’s personal vision of the world we inhabit, that you’ll be inspired to feel unsettled, anew.