Dear, delicate Antony Hegarty -- such a tender boy, still trembling before the spectre of death. On previous albums, he's used his sweet, restrained voice to lament that "His Eyes Are Underneath the Ground" and to wail, beautifully, the woes of being alone when you pass. For "Swanlights," out today (with a corresponding book of Hegarty's visual art), he eventually returns to the same subject but with (whew!) at least a lighter tone.
"Everything Is New" he cries at the start, and soon he's celebrating: "I'm in Love." In the latter, he quivers, "I've been touched, and it's too much!" and indicates he's holding back from showering the object of his affection with birdlike kisses. Woodwinds and strings support his Victorian thrills, and an organ knits his determination underneath it all. It's a pent-up drone, and it rolls and rolls without saying much more. By "Thank You for Your Love," the only structured pop song on the album, Hegarty murmurs his thank yous over and over, stepping out with the tune's cheery melody and the sashay of a tightly contained Muscle Shoals horn section.
But those thank yous could be as easily uttered on a death bed as in a lover's nest. As in life, all of Hegarty's musings return to the inevitable end. "Ghost" makes a spiritual vistor's joyous dance, springing free from bodily constraints, sound so appealing that in "The Great White Ocean" Hegarty is inviting various family members for a swim in "the ocean of death." The saving grace of "Swanlights," however, is that the music stays buoyant, light, refuses to wallow or plunge into minor-chord misery even while the lyrics, when they rarely lean toward specifics, fall back on old fixations. "The Great White Ocean" is a devilish arrangement, with slow, bright acoustic guitar tip-toeing through the song, all the while waaaaaaaay in the sonic distance a dissonant string section hums, like death himself twitching at your ear. Unfortunately, these ambitions go astray as often as they succeed, with "Everything Is New," the title track and others merely dissolving into a murky mess.