As a collaborator to an eclectic group of fellow musicians, Antony has proven over the years that he can accommodate his talents to most any style — he’s worked with Lou Reed, covered Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” dueted with Rufus Wainwright and laid down some dance tracks for the disco revivalist group Hercules and Love Affair. But when it comes to his own albums with The Johnsons, he always falls back on a very similar style: operatic chamber pop, high on melancholic drama and centered around his signature voice — a stunning, vibrato-laden wail that can lower you into his world and break your heart within one verse.
The new album “Swanlights” is hardly a drastic overhaul of the usual experience — the mood is often solemn, the tempo is often slow, the chamber pop arrangements are still riddled with unrestrained sentiment. So for anyone who hasn’t started feeling Antony’s repetoire thus far, this album probably won’t be much help. Or at least not on an initial listen.
This is another great demonstration of his songwriting gifts, as it proves he can keep finding new ways to work within the same niche. All The Johnsons’ releases have been similar in sound and in spirit, but it isn’t fair to say each album has just been a rehash — they’re all separated by different prevailing concepts and the subtle progressions that accompany them.
This time, the unifying theme is rebirth, a surprising contrast to the more fatalistic viewpoint of the band’s recent material. The bookending songs “Everything is New” and “Christina’s Farm” are tied together by the exhilaration of new beginnings — the first song consists of Antony simply repeating the titular phrase over and over, like he’s trying to grasp onto the feeling of discovery, and the finale expands on the same feeling: “Everything is new/Every sock and shoe/My face and your face, tenderly renewed.”
The motif of starting anew emerges again and again, in the slow-burning “The Great White Ocean,” the theatrical romp “Ghost” and the title track, a ghostly, droning centerpiece. Sure, they don’t exactly sound very elated for the subject matter, but at least he’s got some positive thinking going.
On the topic of revitalization, Antony also touches on love, and he does so in a manner that’s unusually inclusive.
The carnival-esque “I’m In Love” and the jazzy mantra “Thank You for Your Love” feel more like standards than deeply personal statements — they’re bright, accessible, blissfully simplistic songs that catch the band sounding as outrightly joyous as they ever have.
On 2005’s “I Am a Bird Now,” Antony alternated between existential meltdowns and issue songs about the AIDS epidemic and transgender identity crises. Last year’s “The Crying Light” was a song suite from a very lonely place — the instrumentation was sparse, the tone was more funereal than sad, and the lyrics were fearful hymns about worlds decaying, whether it was ours or Antony’s. He kept challenging listeners to either delve deep into his emotional onslaught or be completely isolated from it.
Compared to that, “Swanlights” represents a slight emergence back into the world at large. Perhaps taking a cue from its two jubilant love songs, “Swanlights” has Antony getting a little closer to meeting listeners halfway. Or at least it does some of the time.
With songs like “The Spirit Was Gone” and “Swanlights,” this isn’t exactly the feel-good album of the year. Still, it makes me think of a great line by one of Antony’s biggest idols, Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Antony might be cracking in a different way than he originally was.