By Keir Bristol
When I studied singing in high school, we were taught that when one’s voice goes vibrato, it meant one was running out of air. The singer’s voice was always expected to be smooth. When I first heard Antony Hegarty’s voice (of Antony and the Johnsons), I noted that he took the vibrato technique to a new level. He made it work for him. He made it beautiful. Advocate.com describes his voice as a “mournful vibrato,” which is quite an accurate description. Imagine his voice as a richer, rippled version of his inspiration Nina Simone’s voice.
For those who aren’t familiar with Antony and the Johnsons, it’s a chamber-pop/cabaret band lead by Antony Hegarty. He is a singer with a rare quality- he has something that no one else can touch. I’m sure no one in the world has a voice as supernatural as his, and the composition of his albums are purely genius. Every song written with poetic lyrics, every instrument forming intricate melodies and harmonies. When it comes to Antony and the Johnsons, there is no such thing as filler; each song is connected AND can stand on its own if need be.
His latest disc, Swanlights does not disappoint. The bands’ instrumentation is more complex than that of 2009’s The Crying Light. It opens with “Everything is New,” which combines exquisite vocals with repetition, a technique Hegarty uses often. He starts out simple and quiet and builds as the song goes on, with only three words. The first single from the album, “Thank You For Your Love,” also utilizes repetition, but is one of the less impressive songs on the album.
The title track has Hegarty’s voice appear mangled in the beginning as pianos begin to twinkle in the background. As his voice grows clearer it begins to echo and layer over dark, stirring cellos. “Swanlights” is the most haunting of all of the tracks, but is still adorned with lyrics like fairy-tales.
“What I have seen / Faces in my dreams / Oh the Swanlights / The Swanlights // When I close my eyes / And dream Swans come / When in love I lean / On the Swanlight song // Oh it’s such a mystery to me / Oh it’s such a mystery to me…”
And then of course, there is the duet with Björk on “Flétta”. Technically, it’s a duet but Bjork definitely has the upper hand on this track. Hegarty barely whispers harmonies against Bjork’s dominating voice. Again, it starts slowly like soft rain, and then builds. It’s a beautiful track, and possibly a long-awaited one as well for fans of Antony and the Johnsons.
The album closes with “Christina’s Farm,” haunting and dark but still beautiful, borrowing a bit of the repetition from the opening track, “Everything is New.”
Swanlights is also a departure from The Crying Light in terms of subject. The Crying Light was an album that combined gender politics with green and environmental issues. Even all of these sensitive subjects can be transformed into extraordinary scores with Hegarty’s voice and his backing orchestra. Swanlights is more about the typical song topic; love. And yet, Hegarty can take a cliche and make it all his own as well. Every time one listens to the album, one will discover something new that they never noticed the first time around.