Antony and the Johnsons make the kind of music you hear in the opening montage of an artsy, independent film, or the kind you turn on when you’re feeling contemplative and maybe a little bittersweet. You know, the mood where you keep your textbook open on your lap under the pretext of doing homework, but really you just end up staring out the window, thinking about life and assuming you’ll absorb the knowledge through your knees.
But oddly, that’s the best way to listen to Swanlights, the band’s fourth studio album. Singer Antony Hegarty’s haunting voice floats in and out of the string and piano accompaniment, elusive yet impossible to ignore. In a group that boasts a number of seriously accomplished musicians – a Berklee College of Music grad and two Carnegie-Hall-alum violin prodigies, to name a few – Antony’s voice is still the most impressive. It is naked and untampered with on most tracks on the album, which spotlights its intriguing, warbling quality. Hegarty’s voice, as beautiful as it is, has a characteristically sad overtone, which he places front-and-center in songs like “Thank You For Your Love,” one of the album’s more upbeat tracks, when he croons “When all is falling in the seizure of pain/ Oh thank you for your love.”
But despite the well-educated musicians and the mystical voice, some tracks prove less than the sum of their parts. “Flétta,” a collaboration with the even more vocally-impressive Bjork, is surprisingly disappointing. Although both singers are immensely talented, neither one uses his or her pipes to their fullest potential, failing to bring the listener up to the lofty, dreamlike place we’ve come to expect from them. Rather, they are far outshone by the mediocre piano accompaniment.
But don’t entirely blame Bjork for the failure of “Flétta”: the band gives ample proof that it can disappoint without the help of an Icelandic superstar. In “Thank You For Your Love,” the band strays from its roots with an interesting, jazzy beat, complete with a saxophone accompaniment. Unfortunately, the optimistic sound comes off forced and inorganic, making it anomalous from the rest of the album and spoiling the purity of Hegarty’s vocals.
But despite its shortcomings, Swanlights does present a good handful of quality work. In “Salt Silver Oxygen,” a sweeter tune, Hegarty puts forth all his best vocal qualities, while the musicians perfectly compliment him with a beautiful backing arrangement. Artistic experimentation is always interesting, sure, but this song proves that sometimes sticking to basics works even better – Antony and the Johnsons have a very solid stylistic sound, and even with their fourth album they are able to explore new depths within the bounds of the genre that works for them. As well as provide me with yet another procrastination tool.