Given the 144 pages of art book that adds record-shop bag weight to Swanlights, Antony & The Johnsons' fourth full-length record, it feels strange to talk of it as minimal. Antony Hegarty's showy, operatic voice always makes that descriptor sit uneasily, really. But as the record starts, with stark piano notes underpinning the ascending moans of "Everything Is New," the emotion captured seems as pure and unfussy as any you'll find. Antony's previous record, last year's The Crying Light, was an easy entry point to the work of an intimidatingly dramatic performer, the lush glide of its strings meeting the (relative) restraint of his vocals at a gorgeous medium. Though the specific shades of his chamber-pop palette haven't drastically changed, there's an itchy, nervous energy here that makes for a more difficult, harrowing listen. A low, discordant buzz lurks in the background of "The Great White Ocean"'s pretty stillness. "I'm in Love," which ostensibly expresses the joy of infatuation, better captures the overwhelmed, maybe-going-to-puke anxiety of its first uncertain blush. His strange lyrical flourishes are stripped down too, as with the beautiful, heartbreaking grief of "The Spirit Was Gone." "The spirit was gone from her body," he sings calmly, but this most basic observation of life's transition to not-life is still so "hard to understand." It's compelling, true stuff, but boy is it dark.
When the grateful warmth of "Thank You for Your Love" finally hits, it's a balm of sweet relief. Again, the horn hits make the song active in comparison to Crying Light's smooth lilt. But when Antony doubles the horn section singing a repeated "honey, honey, honey" it's the record's clarion moment of joy; the butterflies of "I'm in Love" now in full stride. The album never finds that comfort again, though it's always a pleasure to hear his otherwordly voice meet its equal in Bjork's. Their foreign language duet, "Fletta," easily matches those from her Volta album. A quiet piano figure provides them all the empty space in the world for which to blare across, but both have the good taste to practice restraint. The LP's late bloom continues with "Salt Silver Oxygen," religious imagery restoring the vivid oddness of Hegarty's lyrics, after an album full of plain-spoken sentiment. "Dancing with his casket, Christ becomes wife," goes a representative line, heavy with meaning that's tricky to pin down, yet hard to shake. Even as Swanlights refuses to just be pretty, it remains pretty damn captivating.