NPR logo First Listen: Antony And The Johnsons, 'Swanlights'

First Listen: Antony And The Johnsons, 'Swanlights'

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Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. Don Felix Cervantes hide caption

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Don Felix Cervantes

Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons.

Don Felix Cervantes

To write about an Antony and the Johnsons record is to strain for sufficiently mournful adverb-adjective combos: "oppressively sad," "winsomely heartsick," "imposingly melancholy." Singer Antony Hegarty embodies the tragic grace and wounded dignity of a lifelong outsider who's spent decades smearing the line between genders, and he embodies it by opening his psychic wounds in song.

If Hegarty's first few albums find him searching and pleading for acceptance and kindness, the new Swanlights feels like the tentative culmination of that mission: The first single, "Thank You for Your Love," expresses gratitude with a euphoric fervency signifying spiritual rebirth, while "Ghost" purges demons and buries the past with the aid of a gorgeous string arrangement by Nico Muhly, as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Elsewhere, Swanlights disguises its catharsis in shrouds of gloom — "Everything is new, every sock and shoe / My face and your face, tenderly renewed," Hegarty sings in "Christina's Farm," amid a funereal backdrop — and even locates a spot to pass lead vocals to Bjork, in the alternately spare and jaunty "Fletta."

Cumulatively, Swanlights isn't exactly a beach record, but for Hegarty, it does sound like a rough approximation of feeling good — or at least a sincere attempt to pursue happiness and growth. It sounds like an Antony and the Johnsons record, no question, but it's coming from a place where hope exists for more than just the purpose of getting dashed.

Swanlights will stream here in its entirety until Oct. 12. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.