Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Crying Light, by Antony and the Johnsons (Album Review)

The music of Antony and the Johnsons is a mix of jazz, faerie music, blues, and cabaret. It’s definitely not rock-and-roll, not pop, not rap. The group’s second album, I Am a Bird Now, won (somewhat controversially) the prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK in 2005. The new album, released last month, is as delicately downbeat as the previous albums.

Antony Hegarty’s stark but lush vibrato transcends its inspirations. Singer-performance artist Laurie Anderson compared it to the effect of hearing Elvis Presley sing for the first time. I’d go further and say it is like hearing the human voice in song for the first time in prehistory.

In a New York magazine article last month, Antony included among his influences Kate Bush, Boy George, Marc Almond, Nina Simone, Lou Reed, and Nico Muhly. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Antony included John Waters, Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith, and Kazuo Ohno as his spiritual fathers. Kazuo Ohno is the 102-year-old pioneer spirit of Butoh dance in Japan, whose picture appears on A&tJs’ new album, The Crying Light, which is also dedicated to him.

No other musical artist I can think of could treat ecological annihilation with the sublime poetry reached in song after song on the latest album, arguably the group’s best yet. In Antony’s characteristic reversal of affect, sadness in joy, happiness in melancholy, these songs, like “Another World,” find the sweetness and light in the long-predicted global cataclysm, only now clearly evident to our senses: “I’m gonna miss the wind / Been kissing me so long.”

My gift is not for music analysis. Music often strikes me as excessively manipulative—and too easily consumable as a commodity that merely encourages more consumption. Unless I can dance to it, I rarely see the point of it. In solitude I prefer silence or, more precisely, the ambient sounds of my real environment.

But the music of A&tJs is a comfort to me. His poetry, as mystical as anything by Rumi, Teresa of Avila, Blake, or Yeats, is grounded in imagism. There’s a hard edge to even his most fragile lyrics:

“Epilepsy is dancing,
She’s the Christ now departing,
And I’m finding my rhythm
As I twist in the snow.”

The video for this song, directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix, Speed Racer), captures its (and the whole album’s) eerie pansexual eroticism spurred by an awareness of fading wilderness.

I can imagine that Antony is not for every taste. He is often compared to Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie, artists with whom he’s collaborated and whom I admire as well. But it seems to me that Antony is several rungs above them—his artistry is unforced, never precious, never overtly “experimental,” though his accomplishment is unlike anything in music now or ever before. Unlike his influences or the artists he’s compared to, Antony imbues his work with a unique mix of moral righteousness, spiritual vision, and naïve intelligence.

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