29 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #2: Swanlights and the Ghost in the Garden

So now it's Antony and the Johnsons' turn to completely undermine one of my exhaustive analyses with a new album and a new direction. October's Swanlights is quite a different work from the earlier records that I discussed in my last post about the band, but to be honest, it does represent the following-through of the kind of stylistic changes that 2009's The Crying Light indicated. Already, by then, Antony had knotted his sheets together, or tressed and meshed some long flaxen wig, preparing to escape the dark attic room of his Gothic mode, descending the tower walls and taking refuge in the grounds. The Crying Light was Antony's first outdoors album, with its fixation (both musical and lyrical) on the natural - snow and dust, light and earth, birds and streams. Swanlights continues this trend - it is a druidic ritual of minerals and water.

The fresh air has clearly transformed Antony; his songs are stranger, more varied and less constrained, his lyrics have moved from the starkly personal to the heavily allegorical, his sexuality from confrontational to apparently normalised. He has, in essence, found an environment in which he appears comfortable, a soundworld pliable enough to fit his eccentricities. He no longer needs to resist, he has become naturalised.

The song 'Ghost' demonstrates all this very clearly. The whispers in the tapestries have been shaken out, the pain exorcised, the spirit is (apparently) gone. Thanks largely to the presence of Nico Muhly and his distinctive arrangements, Antony's soundworld has shifted from close and claustrophobic to very airy and fresh, of which 'Ghost' is a good example. The general move away from piano-dominated tracks adds to this shift, and when the piano is made use of, it is often in the kind of rushing minimalist sonorities and trance-like harmonies (for example on 'Everything Is New' and 'I'm In Love') that have turned Muhlian pop minimalism into the turn-of-the-decade signifier for the natural world. I have always felt that Antony should be pulling towards the avant-garde. His affinity with Björk here seems indicative of this - hers is a model that he'd do well to follow.

However (however, however) this is still Antony. He's not following the pioneer trail of folk-based indie, rediscovering the idealised natural landscapes of Appalachia, or even those of Iceland. Being Antony, his outdoor realm is unlike any other. With its huge weight of allegory, the lyrical and musical imagery here seems more to inhabit some sort of symbolist garden. From The Crying Light's 'Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground' onwards, this 'garden' that Antony describes is totally subjective: a landscape of quiet, remembered glades, marble follies, and the unnatural stillness and transparency which the piano and strings etch out. New songs like 'Salt Silver Oxygen' depict a neoclassical Eden or Gethsemane, adorned with the hangings of some vaguer pagan idyll. And Antony appears to play some painted dryad, rendered in an Impressionist haze, so completely at one with these landscapes that it is clear they will exist only as long as he does. As the denizen of his own imagined woodland, Antony's music occasionally approaches Patrick Wolf's own arboreal fantasies on these albums, although he is always more subtle and never risks the kind of awkwardness that Wolf is prone to.

Hearing the visions of these two albums within a garden planted only with Antony's own signs and symbols, the sense of the Gothic is, in fact, maintained - the literary reference point is now only more Angela Carter than Ann Radcliffe, or Miss Jessop appearing in the rushes in Turn of the Screw. His ghost is in the garden now, glimpsed over the lake or amongst the trees, rather than at the top of the stairs - the Gothic trope lives on, as does the great sadness which accompanies it. And what of sexuality and gender? It is clear that, for the while, the singer has found some inner peace, but I think this is only in the nature of so personal a garden. The earthy, feminine images which fill both these albums charge each blade of grass with the force of Antony's anima; the fleeting birds which served this purpose on I Am A Bird Now adorn every branch of this interior landscape. It resembles those same gardens that embowered Biblical sexuality: the supreme innocence of every act in Eden and, most of all, the Song of Solomon, which invests each frond with profound sexual moment. This garden, then, is the kind of lush, archetypal Jungian dreamland in which killing a butterfly, or even plucking a leaf, could have earth-shattering consequences on collective culture and ethics. It is a far cry from the idylls of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, or the beach paradises of the surf bands. It is, in its own way, an oppressive place - both unbearably light and untenably dense.

This may all seem like a long way to go to unite the output of an increasingly variable artist, but I can't help detect another layer as Swanlights progresses, after the faerie songs and starlit apparitions of the album's first half, as the record burns to its end. First off, the 'kitsch' factor of I'm A Bird Now is revisited on one track only, 'Thank You For Your Love' (a typical Antony sentiment), which is set wonderfully askew by the erratic skips and loops of the closing section. It is from this point onwards that it seems possible that the strange scenes we might have witnessed could exist only in painted form - that, zooming out, the dark-haired figure melting so naturally into the trees might constitute only a few brushstrokes on a half-lit canvas on the wall of that same dark room, or a few gold stitches woven into some dusty hanging. It is all too dreamlike. The Björk-led 'Flétta' is the pivotal moment here. Its piano introduction is too lonely to allow any real sense of freedom; meanwhile, Björk acts as the awakener, her impenetrable Icelandic words holding some deep and sad portent of the real nature of things, speaking through the dreams. That this track is followed by the most overtly surreal, visual depiction of Antony's garden, 'Salt Silver Oxygen', which is written onto an orchestral accompaniment that becomes all the more delicate and unreal as it is repeated over and over, seems to draw attention to the artificial perfection of his vision. It is a different album from The Crying Light, stranger and less kitsch, and as Antony's poetic fantasies become more singular and personal, they also become more fragile. While The Crying Light ended with the balletic delusion of 'Everglade', Swanlights ends on a far darker note - the distant, clairvoyant 'Christina's Farm'. When Antony sings 'everything is new' at the album's opening, we can perhaps believe it. But here, at the album's close, there is a chilling echo - 'Everything was new', he repeats - reiterated with the bleakness of recollection, shrouded darkly in sparse piano and close strings.

Clearly, for me, Swanlights  (and by extention, The Crying Light) is enriched by this reading of Antony and the Johnsons' work as a whole, but, in the same way, the group's past oeuvre could also be enriched by the kind of unique insight that Antony's 'dream garden' reveals. I enjoy the singer's journeys into other artists' worlds - those guest spots which have helped establish his unique presence in modern music - but more fascinating are these interior journeys, the depiction of other worlds in which nature and music bend to the singer's own strangeness, and - on top of that - the glimpses outwards, back through the frame, at the reality which renders such strangeness strange, and gilds his secret fantasies with the sadness of impossibility.

antony and the johnsons-Ghost by The Drift Record Shop
Antony & The Johnsons - Salt silver oxygen by isaidahip