In the early 19th century, Franz Schubert - who composed probably more songs, and more beautiful songs, than anyone else anywhere ever - used to occasionally gather with his friends, in his home or in theirs, around a piano, sometimes with another instrument or so, and share music. These wonderful, intimate evenings became known as 'Schubertiades' - a word that even today still conjures up images of music shared, softly, privately, lovingly.
That whole sense of music as community - music as a place where people gather and tell their stories to each other, gently, unadorned and yet infinitely eloquent, music that is spontaneous and personal - is something that we don't often encounter any more. Music is often so big that it feels like it could encompass everything, or else it is so small, so inward looking, that you feel almost voyeuristic listening to it.
But in Antony and the Johnson's latest album, Swanlights, we again have something of that feeling of music as a thing that people share with one another - something that is part private, part public, but always authentic, always growing, like a seedling, from something buried, tentative, from darkness into the light. Here the music wafts from moments that are austerely sad, like the the hesitating sorrow of 'The Spirit was Gone', to others that are playfully joyful, like a child discovering love for the first time in 'I'm in Love'. The music grabs a few fragile threads, a piano, a cello, a harp, the broken, shivering voice of Antony Hegarty, weaves them together, sometimes reinforcing them with the stark power of some brass, as in 'Thank You for Your Love', or underlining them with lush, droning strings, as in the title track, and builds it into a warm, embracing tapestry of beauty, frail and yet somehow strangely enduring too.
Joining that warm, intimate, sanctified community, on 'Flétta', the ninth song of the album, is Björk - she and Antony singing a strange, cold, wandering tale in Icelandic, so foreign and yet so at home on this album where everything feels like it is being improvised, but not just by musicians - by hearts and souls that have smiled and cried, loved and lost, lived and died.
And what they create is both simple and delicate - but not in the pure, perfect way of say, a snow crystal but, rather, in the heartachingly vulnerable way of a child born too soon, weak and defenceless, quivering, gasping for breath even when it is laughing and happy.
The 46 minutes of Swanlights felt like an eternity on the edge to me - music where you feel like you might be standing around that naked, broken, bent little child, silently sharing your hopes and fears for its future, your happiness and sadness for its life, your love, your loss, your wonder at how something this vulnerable could live at all: sharing it all with that special handful of people you love the most.
Swanlights is probably the least immediately accessible album from Antony and the Johnsons so far - but that's because the territory it canvasses is so uniquely personal: an intimate gathering that this album invites you to be part of. Listen to it a few times, and you will feel that same kind of privilege that Schubert's friends must have felt when they, too, gathered around a piano and listened to a great and fractured man tell them about love.