'Swanlights' Shows an Increasingly Refined Antony

Antony and the Johnsons

Swanlights (Secretly Canadian)

With his third album, 2009's The Crying Light, Antony abandoned the already slight rock influences that popped up on his breakthrough album, I Am a Bird Now, and even removed most of the pop from his chamber pop. The result was a work of refined ambience and subtle complexity that could seem stunning if you gave it your full attention, stuffy if you weren't in the mood. Though Swanlights exhibits a similar austerity, there are moments that hark back to Antony's cabaret and theater beginnings. With their orchestral swells, busy piano runs, and dramatic vocals, "Ghost" and "Salt Silver Oxygen" seem well-suited for a musical theater production, while a carnival organ runs through the jaunty, sing-songy "I'm in Love." The obvious single, "Thank You for Your Love," gets things swinging for a couple of minutes with horns and a backbeat borrowed from Stax, but for the most part the songs ride a slow tempo set by a piano and accompanied by a string section.

This increased refinery might put off listeners who were first drawn in to Antony's world by the elegant but quirky "For Today I Am a Boy" or the sleazy swagger of "Fistful of Love." At times the music runs the risk of being like wallpaper, and the floral kind at that. Fortunately, Antony's voice will always be the star of the show, the anchor of the songs in the arrangements and the mix. His effortless, androgynous tenor oozes emotion, usually tending to the torchier side of things, and his control of it is awe-inspiring.

There is one blatant misstep on the album. Bjork is allowed the lead on "Fletta," appearing near the end of the album, while Antony is relegated to a background singer. Normally I'm a Bjork apologist, but her vocal is out of place here, its pungency a rude intrusion on what had been a pleasant enough experience, like someone slipping a sardine into your milkshake. Skip it and you're that much nearer to album-closer "Christina's Farm"—an exquisite piano ballad with a grand orchestral build toward the end, it's a prime showcase for Antony's vocal and lyrical talents. And while it lacks the panache of some of his more dramatic material, it could well end up being one of his greatest songs.