Although we’ve come to know him as a modern workhorse, Antony Hegarty has always been able to keep his work with the Johnsons that much more invigorating. Whether he’s remixed mainstream artists or assisted on electronic records, albums like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light were always adorned with particular touches you couldn’t find elsewhere. So it’s suitably fitting for Hegarty, now his fourth album, to release what just might be his most challenging album to date with Swanlights. Not only are there songs that lack piano, there’s a various collection of rhythms, styles and modes that shift in and out of focus. And while fans will surely enjoy the album’s weighty material, it might take that much longer for possible new fans to come around to it.
The styles that parade their way onto Swanlights would probably be the most noticeably diverse change from what happened on previous albums. You still have Hegarty’s gloriously strong words but this time, like on “I’m In Love,” the drums pound a tribal beat against Hegarty’s almost scat-like singing. And on “The Spirit Was Gone,” the piano stands as the song’s sole melody but it’s so entirely free-moving and abruptly short, that it acts more as a transitional section to the lead single and ensuing closing suite of songs. The breathtaking instrumentation and compositions are easily still here – the sheer repetition of hearing Hegarty sing the song’s title with a clarinet to pair is remarkable – they’re just going to take a little more attention to decipher.
One of the album’s earnest highlights is Hegarty’s duet with Björk on “Fletta.” Björk takes the lead throughout, allowing the piano to gently follow behind her while Hegarty lulls in and out. The threading piano line chimes such a fantastic melody and in direct harmony, both Hegarty and Björk combine for a wonderful blend of voices. Each is singularly stunning and intuitively captivating, they always support each other, showcasing impeccable strengths. While Björk’s guest appearance only lends a small hand to the album’s overall theme, because it follows the lead single, “Thank You for Your Love,” you’re left with two of the most upbeat songs in one swift section. It makes the impact that much more significant but the all the more desirable, too.
There’s always been a subtle beauty to Antony and the Johnsons’ music, on “Everything is New,” the minor-ridden piano patters a jagged rhythm before introducing a soaring vocal line that is the exact opposite (linear and glowing) of what relentless playing the piano was doing before. Hegarty’s music is in constant adaptation on Swanlights; as he sings “I cry everything…everything is new” against the dissonant swirl, the music itself is taking on a completely new disguise.
Challenging or not, in many ways, it’s the perfect way to start the album as it represents the engrossing fusions that Hegarty will perform. Two albums in two years – with two EPs somewhere in there too – is a noteworthy accomplishment. They’re radiantly dissimilar and still, each is an exceptional new expression in Hegarty’s music. Unlike the brimming new-year feel of The Crying Light in 2009, Swanlights is the ending swoon to 2010.