Album: Antony & the Johnsons, Swanlights (Rough Trade)

The voice of an angel, the lyrics of a crossword puzzle
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An angel of indeterminate gender, as angels usually are, Antony Hegarty broke our hearts in 2005 with his second, Mercury-winning album I Am a Bird Now by laying himself bare, and by singing in a miraculous voice which perfectly channelled that emotional nudity.

Two albums later, that voice – that inimitable warble (but it's oh so tempting to try) – is somehow beyond emotion, and has becomes a piece of art in itself.

It's as though his tears are frozen into jewels, and sculpted into new shapes, disconnected from whatever first gave rise to them. Swanlights comes in two physical formats: the first and most expensive is a 144-page hardback book of Hegarty's paintings, but even the regular CD is a work of art whose inner booklet opens like origami.

Recorded with the help of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Swanlights is a twinkling and crystalline thing, with a lyrical lexicon which is heavy on metaphors drawn from nature – snakes and blackbirds, saltwater and nectar – and often arcane and obscure.

Take this crossword clue of a lyric: "Dancing with his casket, Christ becomes wife" (from "Salt Silver Oxygen"). When the backwards vocals on the title track subside and he sighs "Ooh it's such a mystery to me" over a root note that shudders like Johnny Marr's guitar in "How Soon Is Now", you're inclined to reply, "Yeah, no kidding..."

Pick away at this mysterious surface, however, and Hegarty's raw emotions soon filter through. There is, on Swanlights, a paradoxical tussle between the need for human contact ("You could be my friend eternally") and the fear of intimacy: "I've been touched, I've been touched, and it's too much, it's too much!" he frantically sings, like a traumatised pupil of the Christian Brothers.

There's also an ongoing fear of mortality which harks back to "Hope There's Someone" in lines such as "Swim with me, my sister, when I die...", while "The Spirit Was Gone" reveals an almost childlike incomprehension of death, of the disentwining of the soul and flesh.

Having appeared on her Volta album in 2007 (one of a series of collaborations that has also included, among others, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond, Linda Thompson and Marianne Faithfull, Hegarty coaxes Björk into repaying the compliment on "Fletta", a hesitant, tentative piano ballad sung in her native Icelandic, in which Hegarty takes a back seat.

"Thank You for Your Love" may be the most fantastically involving thing he's done since "Fistful of Love", a tour de force of Stax-like devotional soul which descends into crazed broken-record glitches towards its climax.

What Antony Hegarty is trying to tell us is often a riddle, but it's never less than beautifully wrought.