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Antony & The Johnsons - Swanlights
(Jagjauwar Records)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Jan. 22, 2011
Antony & The Johnsons

Review by Tony Bonyata

On Antony Hegarty's fourth full-length album, Swanlights, the singer / pianist and his backing band The Johnsons continue in a similar musical path laid down from their previous efforts built on emotion, drama and avant-garde escapism. What is noticeably different, however, is that many of the songs featured on this outing are even more ghostly and ethereal than before.

As shadows descend like storm clouds, bright pinpoints of light dance with hope on ballads such as "The Spirit Was Gone," "Everything Is New," and the foreboding surrealistic title track. Lighter songs like the baroque orchestral pop of "Salt Silver Oxygen" offer a positive vibe, as does the album's lead-off single "Thank You For Your Love," which opens up as an introspective ballad that by mid-song swells into a surprisingly upbeat slice of R&B, complete with exuberant horns and potent rhythm section.

While The Johnsons offer the perfect push-pull musical backing, it's their bandleader's dramatic, cabaret-ready compositions that ultimately steals the spotlight. Antony's songs of love and life and death are deeply affecting, as if all of the humor and irony had been sapped from Morrissey's own songs just leaving a sense of stark romantic tragedy. And then there's that voice. One that warbles and waves like Bryan Ferry in his youthful Roxy Music days, yet has the power and sway to capture its listeners like a fly in a spider's web.

On the beautiful track "Fletta" Antony duets with the like-minded Icelandic musician Bjork, and it's one of the album's most sumptuous tracks. And while Bjork isn't present on the number "Ghost" her own influence and style of songwriting can be heard tiptoeing throughout, whether intentional or not.

There's an operatic sense of drama and passion that floats through these 11 songs as if Antony was working in tandem through the spirits of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In the end, it's a breathtaking and unique, if not altogether dark, musical journey.

Related articles:

Antony and the Johnsons - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - Feb. 2009
Antony and the Johnsons - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - Oct. 2005

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