The first time I heard Antony & The Johnson's properly was midmorning in February 2005 driving from Newark to Nottingham. Jo Whiley was in her Radio 1 slot and introduced the extraordinary song 'Hope There's Someone'. The vocal was nothing short of amazing. The combination of lyric, intonation, atmospherics and spectacular voice still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, that is the power of Antony & The Johnsons. (The ensuing public opinion via text and e-mail was divided, and as for Jo, well, she likes everything doesn't she?)
Having had the introduction I bought the album, I Am A Bird Now, and its predecessor. They were, and still are fantastic. Whatever the detractors may have had to say about the Mercury winning album of 2005, because of Antony's country of residence, or the collaborators that contributed to its brilliance, I still think it was a very worthy winner. The stories and recollections were told so vividly and candidly that they were at times disturbingly honest. Antony laid his heart bare and told of his struggles to find acceptance and love whilst wrestling with his inner demons.
Antony's early trademarks were not only his ability to share his experiences and tribulations in a well crafted song but also in his skill to express these as very dramatic, and sometimes theatrical pieces, that were both full of emotion, as well as musical expression. A plethora of highs and lows abound on the first 2 A&TJ's albums. As well as the particularly reflective sadness of Hope There's Someone Antony also gave us the very personal, You Are My Sister and harrowing Fistful Of Love. He showed his determination and defiance with Cripple And The Starfish and drew good from evil in Hitler In My Heart, and all with undoubted passion. Clearly capturing his pain Antony was an artist flourishing during the creative process, able to expertly transfer is emotion into a magnificent musical manifestation.
I Am A Bird Now was five years ago and Antony and the Johnson's are now releasing their fourth album, the follow up to 2008's Crying Light. Swanlights, the new 11 piece set, continues 'His connection to the natural world' whilst at the same time making it increasingly more difficult to connect to many of the songs. Antony's recurring themes of change and metamorphosis, love and longing, lust and tragedy, suffering and torment, and life and creation are all here, but many of the theatrics and dramatical embodiments are sadly lacking. Antony it would seem, like many an artist before him, was infinitely better when he had to suffer for his art. When Mr Hegerty was lacking the love he so dearly craved, when he was under appreciated and merely 'underground' the work he produced proved to be more powerful.
Swanlights is not I Am A Bird Now, nor is it a bad album, it is however slightly disappointing when you know the capabilities of its creator. In love Antony is good but out of love he is a hell of a lot better. The lead song from the album 'Thank You For Your Love' was released as a 5 track EP in August. The unnatural progression of the percussive thread sits behind some gentle horns and keys as Antony's fabulous voice soars to the building score. Here, and on occasion elsewhere, Antony does nearly let go as we know he is capable of. When he dons his party frock and comes out all guns blazing, showing all the pizzazz he can muster, he can be as wonderful as when he is being his quiet introverted softly spoken self and I only wish the production would reflect this.
After the soft and gentle introduction of 'Everything Is New' comes 'The Great White Ocean', a Prada promo campaign number. The song, telling a story of death, reconciliation and hope, has a near classical guitar performance partnering Antony's vocal with some subtle strings. 'Ghost' brings forth the first of the albums twinkling piano passages, that Antony is so fond of, whilst the violins cut through to add more texture.
Antony shows more conviction and emotive presence on 'I'm In Love'.......' You need only say the word, I'll kiss you like a humming bird...And all my dreams they all came true, the day I lay my head on you.' The looping keyboard mesmerically supports Antony's voice to a varying array of percussion. Violetta takes us on a short instrumental interlude before the albums spectacular title track.
Where there may be some question as to the quality of Antony & The Johnson's subsequent output since winning The Mercury Music prize there is no doubting the definitive track, 'Swanlights'. Starting as a varyingly reversed arrangement of piano, vocal and guitar, the track gradually, and almost seamlessly, transforms itself into an atmospheric vehicle of hauntingly soft incantations. The piano builds, the strings rise and the voice breaks and then, almost as quickly, the song disassembles itself and fades away gloriously.
'Thank You For Your Love' is a reminder of how a more upbeat arrangement can suit A&TJ's, the added horns and more soulful delivery not only recalling Fistful Of Love but also a dash of Dexy's. On 'Fletta' Antony renews his collaborative partnership with Bjork, having previously sung on her 2007 album Volta. The slow balladic number could have been Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan or PJ Harvey and John Parish but disappointingly makes little of the actual combination of individual voices, using Antony's as a minimal instrument of backing vocalist. More like Guy Garvey with Jesca Hoop but not as good.
Christina's Farm wraps up Swanlights with a 7 minute opus revolving around creation, as if starting the album as it first began. 'Everything is new, every soul can choose.'
For Antony's die-hard fans this will be a must have purchase. For those who thought that The Crying Light failed to deliver the promise of I Am A Bird Now, Swanlights may just be a further bridge to far. The songs are less accessible and the arrangements have a less traditional structure to them. There are many moments of genius but not the consistency to make it wholly wonderful. Antony's voice is still a fabulous instrument but the songs need to be more engaging and focused to provide a return to his earlier pinnacle.