Five years since Antony Hegarty’s Mercury Prize win left the Kaiser Chiefs spluttering into their Tetleys about the injustice of a “foreigner” winning the award, Chichester’s most androgynous being has scarcely stood still. In the mere 21 months since his third album The Crying Light, he’s curated art exhibitions in London, Paris and Turin and made a memorable appearance with Yoko Ono at Ornette Coleman‘s Meltdown.
Not that you’d guess at such a frantic workrate by listening to Swanlights. Hegarty’s fourth album strictly follows the template laid down by his previous records: fragile, sombre and wistful, always dominated by that extraordinary tremulous voice, seemingly forever on the brink of bursting into tears. Most surprisingly, for anyone weighed down by the grief and gloom of The Crying Light, is that Antony seems to have lightened up a bit this time round.
The reason for this new happiness is, inevitably, love. And although much of Swanlights isn’t so different from what’s gone before, that lightness of touch makes a huge difference. The self-explanatory I’m In Love is just glorious, with Hegarty exclaiming that “You need only say the word, and I’ll kiss you like a hummingbird” while strings swell lovingly in the background. You’ll even forgive him for resorting to scat singing at one point.
Opening track Everything Is New also shines this new-found brightness all around it, with Hegarty expressing his wonder simply by repeating the song’s title over and over again, while Thank You For Your Love is possibly the record’s most accessible moment, a beautiful piano led ballad – again, there’s lots of lyrical repetition here, but it’s easy to identify with sentiments like “when I was lost in the darkness, thank you for your love”. The unexpected appearance of a horn section makes for an unlikely muscular chorus.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Antony And The Johnsons record without a healthy dollop of mysterious darkness. The title track is six minutes of ethereal wonder, an odd drone running through the song adding a degree of tension. Björk also appears on Flétta, a track sung entirely in Icelandic – the two vocals combine perfectly, but it’s all a bit too austere to really satisfy.
If there’s a fault here, it’s that it can all be a bit too long-winded. Christina’s Farm is seven minutes long and, at times, is brilliant. Yet the pace meanders around, being pushed to its limit with too much mournful woodwind coming to the fore – a shame, because with its callbacks to the title track, it makes for an effective circular end to the album.
As with Hegarty’s previous releases, there remains the sense that this is an album to be admired, rather than loved, but that’s not to take anything away from the beautiful craftsmanship on display here. Everything may not be that new, but as ever with Hegarty, it’s well worth a listen.