Before we jump into this it’s important to make something clear: Swanlights is both the title of Antony and the Johnsons’ latest album and a collection of Antony Hegarty’s artwork. Sure, all transgender musical geniuses shouldn’t be lumped together, but I like to think of Hegarty as a more psychically wounded, heartbroken, and unbedazzled Hedwig.
I am a long time fan of Antony and the Johnsons and by extension, I wanted to believe that I’d love anything Hegarty placed his delicate hands on. Sadly, I recently found this to be untrue. After studying each page of Hegarty’s collection of art, I was convinced that all it takes to get a book deal is a recognizable name and built-in following. After flipping through a few pages on his own, my best friend, a reluctant artist, said what I didn’t have the heart to say: “This isn’t art.”
According to the singer, it took him three years to compile the collages, paintings, sketches, and scribbles that would eventually become Swanlights and if we’re being honest here, I can’t understand why it would take so goddamn long to compile something so random and childish in appearance. Cryptic squiggles appear on old help wanted ads; newspaper pages are color blocked with what appear to be markers; faded encyclopedia images are taped or stitched together; illegible handwriting appears next to old images of animals that have been torn or cut.
Nothing in Swanlights really spoke to me; it was all too delicate, too precious, and too nonsensical. Its only appeal was that flipping through its pages was like revisiting an old, childhood diary in which snippets or wisps of things seem slightly coherent, if only for a fleeting moment. Or, for those of us spent their younger years dropping acid and getting crafty, Hegarty’s artwork might serve as an uncomfortable reminder of what psychedelic drugs can do to an otherwise healthy mind.
Swanlights the album is markedly better, which just proves that because a musician dabbles in art, doesn’t necessarily mean an entire book should be devoted to their mournful collages. Like Antony and the Johnsons’ previous albums, Hegarty’s beautiful, almost operatic voice will hit you in the gut with longing. Swanlights is all piano and gorgeous string arrangements, with each song unfurling like a poem and repeatedly touching on the themes of water, ghosts, death, and renewal.
It’s Hegarty’s focus on water that I’m most moved by and the reason I will continue listening to Swanlights late at night when something in my brain shifts from happy to sad, on to off. When I was thirteen, my older brother snuck me out of the house and he and his girlfriend drove me around Redondo Beach in her 1967 Chevy Malibu. We listened to Morrissey all night and at that point in my young life, it was the most magical, exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I remember looking out the window at the ocean and thinking how a person could be sucked in by the waves, into the cold and dark, never to be seen again. Admittedly, it was a dark thought for such a lovely night, but the second I realized how true that was I never felt the same about the ocean again. I’m still terrified of it, but also strangely drawn to it, like many people/things in my life. The point of all of this, of course, is that Swanlights reminds me the late night drive and the ocean and strangely enough, of the overwhelming difficulty of being a teenage girl when—as Hegarty sings on the opening track—“Everything is new.”
I’m convinced that “I’m In Love” is the happiest you’ll ever hear Hegarty. Red corral is caressing him, he’s kissing his partner like a hummingbird, and all his dreams came true the day he laid his head on you, but in true Hegarty fashion the song ends with the day his partner cracks open, dies, and “ten black boys flew free from inside.” You’ve got to take the bad with the good, kids, and Hegarty knows this like no other.