Antony Hegarty's peculiar, tremolo voice has always carried a love-it-or-hate-it dynamic, with even those who eventually come to adore his operatic affectations often taken aback at first listen by Hegarty's antiquated vocal styling and unexpected, unapologetically feminine tone. And yet, there's also a self-deprecating charm and wit about his art: One imagines that, if Oscar Wilde were alive today, possessed a singing voice, and formed a band, he would be doing exactly what Hegarty is doing as the frontman of Antony and the Johnsons.
The group's latest, Swanlights, is more art installation than rock record, accompanied by a massive art book that further serves as Antony's sweeping canvas. And though the album is not nearly as piercing or plaintive as The Crying Light, it does help complete Hegarty's role as a true performance artist in the vein of contemporaries like Rufus Wainwright.
As for that voice, it's still as vulnerable, esoteric, and sublime as you remember. The piano-running "Ghost" is Antony at his most versatile, serving in the role of narrator, poet, victim, and dreamer. Evoking the Earth-worshipping spirit that was found throughout The Crying Light, Antony sounds as if he's bent over in pain, almost weeping as he pleads, "Ghost, leap from my heart and find your way/Taste the rivers, chase the sunrise, do not stay." Melodrama, for sure, but expertly executed and utterly sincere. With such bold pronunciations, it's little wonder that Hegarty's female counterpart—and equally unique—Björk joins him on the meditative "Fletta."
Swanlights succeeds on another level, however: by opening up the curtains and windows on The Crying Light's dark, dusty, shut-in house. Amid all that Antony evokes, the musical equivalent of sunlight peeking through the gray is mastered to the fullest here. Indeed, as if following through on the words of "Daylight and the Sun," where Antony sings of "Daylight in my heart/Daylight in the trees/Daylight kisses everything she can see," Swanlights reveals a portrait of the artist looking upward and onward beyond anguish. Nowhere is that better conjured than on tracks like "Salt Silver Oxygen" and "I'm In Love," where Antony, free-spirited, is at last joyful when paired with the lilting melodies. He has done much to mine the beauty of pain; Swanlights proves he can turn his attention expertly onto what lies in ecstasy.