Antony and the Johnsons Swanlights

[Secretly Canadian; 2010]

Styles: cabaret, jazz, art song, queer, folk
Others: Baby Dee, Current 93, Klaus Nomi

Although it is rarely acknowledged, the music of Antony and the Johnsons has a definite precursor in the 80s NYC art scene responsible for elevating drag to high art. By combining the genderfuck antics of figures like David Bowie with an earlier cultural current drawn from Weimar Berlin, New York City drag queens in this era were expected to have abilities beyond wardrobe and lipsync. A performance could be campy and outrageous or involve self-conscious situationist antics, but it would often culminate with a serious moment of disarming beauty, such as Joey Arias’ haunting evocations of Billie Holiday or Klaus Nomi’s pitch-perfect renderings of Wagner operas. On his first two albums, Antony seemed intent on stretching that moment of disarming beauty to album length, by gradually de-emphasizing the theatrical, bracketing the irony, and allowing a fragile piece of humanity to reveal itself. Like Lou Reed’s verse-length biographies of Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn writ large, Antony offered a glimpse of the dark underpinnings of gender play — to a complex psyche fraught with an existential identity crisis, beset with sexual and spiritual longings for which no satisfaction exists. For better or worse, this fragility and complexity was undercut by a certain sense of gothic camp on the first album, and again by an overly literal approach to transgender identity issues on I Am A Bird Now.

But that changed with last year’s The Crying Light. That album decisively completed this shift, with Antony almost completely estranging himself from the drag cabaret style and instead recreating himself as a singer-songwriter working in a thoroughly 21st-century form of art song. Although glimpses of cabaret remain, they exist as ornament, a smear of lipstick or a mascaraed tear to remind us of a past shot through with a degenerated glamor. Antony’s heroes have shifted from Divine and Diamanda to Dylan and Scott Walker. The lush orchestral arrangements, lingering on moments of discord, remind one of the grandiosity of Scott 4. Antony’s choice to cover Dylan’s gospel song “Pressing On” on this year’s Thank You For Your Love EP does not seem incongruous given his new tendency to tackle global concerns from a subjective, poetic perspective: the environment, the malaise of postmodernity, and an unfulfilled collective wish for redemption. The new album Swanlights, released a scant year and some months after The Crying Light, follows that album’s stylistic approach and widened thematic vista.

No longer swallowed in the growing shadows of twilight or awaking to the terror of a dark lake, Antony cleaves toward light now, whether the light is crying or whether it reflects the graceful body of a swan in a lake. The title track attempts a mimetic approach to this theme of reflexivity, with backwards electric guitar and eerie vocal echoes forming a call-and-response in which light and shadow constantly shift positions, mirrored in the lyrics: “Living is a golden thing/ It means everything/ I am gifted by your grace/ Swanlights in the water on that shining face.” It becomes obvious on the new record that Antony is in love, and, among other things, what we love is ourselves reflected in our lover’s eyes, illuminated with a new humanity. Reflection leads to renewal, a desire to remake the world under the sign of some redemption. The luminous ghosts and animal spirits that haunt the 144-page art book that accompanies Swanlights point the way toward this redemption, using collage and primitive doodling to reclaim images of death, destruction, war, and genocide. The album opens and closes with a sad prayer for rebirth. The hushed, excited whisper of “Everything Is New” gallops apace, and the gorgeously epic “Christina’s Farm” is positively joyous in its faith that everything is destined to be “tenderly renewed,” if not in this world, then certainly in the next.

But here, as ever, there is the voice. That keening, vacillating, androgynous instrument that will forever be Antony’s calling card and ultimately the most decisive factor in how his music is received. “The grain of the voice” has never been adequate to describe the appeal of Antony’s vocals. Roland Barthes’ term was meant to underline an indefinable quality, a presence beyond a voice’s technical qualities, a life history etched into its surface. Antony’s voice doesn’t warble or rasp or evoke a misspent youth. It is possessed of a preternatural sense of control, soulful but defamiliarized. The voice is almost too much at times, painting small emotional corners with a too-wide brush, filling syllables and contours with an an excess of meaning. And yet no matter how much Antony wants to fill us with hope for the light, for rebirth and redemption, no matter how bright his canvas or loud his colors, his voice is always filled with an irrevocable sadness. You can never truly reach the light, just as you can never truly become a woman. That Antony consistently links divinity with motherhood and femininity is no accident; they are two sides of the same irrational striving. Men cannot give birth, and God does not exist.

As a song cycle, Swanlights is certainly Antony’s strongest. Thematically and atmospherically, it is even more successful than The Crying Light, achieving its cohesiveness with an even wider stylistic palette. Tracks like “Ghost” and “Salt Silver Oxygen” utilize ravishing symphonic passages that can only be termed cinematic, while “I’m In Love” and “Swanlights” make bold use of avant-garde gestures — modal minimalism and drone, respectively — to intensify their soundworlds. “Flétta,” a collaboration with Björk containing Icelandic lyrics, is given the most minimal arrangement on the album, leaving plenty of room for two very idiosyncratic voices to dance around each other and discover moments of resonance and dissonance. It’s the only track that does not immediately feel completely integrated into the thematic whole, but it works as a brief intermission, a minimal recital before the grandiose orchestral sweep of the album’s final two tracks.

A swan is born an ugly duckling, but it becomes something graceful and beautiful when it matures. However, this grace and beauty is matched with cruelty and fragility; it is unapproachable, delicate, ephemeral. Again and again, Antony gestures toward a light: a crying light, a swanlight, a luminous impossibility that beckons, ultimately serving only to illuminate the sadness of this world.

Links: Antony and the Johnsons - Secretly Canadian

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