Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Limbo

Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (Rough Trade, 2009)

Reactions to ‘The Crying Light’ so far seem to have hinged upon the degree to which commentators have tired of Antony Hegarty’s over-exposed vocal mannerisms. It’s possible that in light of his star turn on last year’s Hercules and Love Affair album that expectations had run unrealistically high for a radical change of direction. The novelty value of hearing a towering gender-confused man deliver an achingly vulnerably vibrato can, it seems, only last for one album before dissipating.

It’s unlikely that Antony’s vocal and musical stylings are going to change all that dramatically. The success of ‘The Crying Light’ therefore depends upon its development and progression of these previously lauded qualities. Any objective assessment of the album depends on a judgment of its myriad subtleties and nuances, of which there are many. For example, few reviewers so far seem to have observed the greater variety in Antony’s execution here. He’s comparatively restrained to match the gentle waltz that accompanies him on the beautiful ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’ (what a curious title). By way of contrast, he’s fuller and bolder on ‘Kiss My Name’ and the impassioned lopsided soul of ‘Aeon’.

Similarly, the arrangements, some of which come from the prodigious pen of the young American composer Nico Muhly, mostly deploy small, meaningful gestures over grand flourishes. Given the number of credited musicians and arrangers, it’s remarkable how delicate much of ‘The Crying Light’ sounds. The interjections of wind and horns are sensitive rather than aggressive and even the more theatrical pieces offer light and shade. Only the lengthy, overwrought ‘Daylight and the Sun’ veers into histrionic territory.

The idea that this is Antony’s ‘nature’ album also seems a little reductive. Some have seen the lead single ‘Another World’ as a mournful lament for an earth ravaged by pollution and climate change. I’m not sure it’s anything of the sort – more the voice of a dying man aware of his imminent departure, perhaps even reluctantly deciding on it. A good deal of the album seems to be concerned with death and rebirth, or a peculiar state of limbo between life and death. Antony himself uses this explanation for the selection of the image of a nonogenarian butoh dancer on the cover. These thematic preoccupations are rather more woolly than the stridently personal concerns with gender and sexuality on ‘I Am A Bird Now’ but they ought also to be more universal. Paradoxically, though, Antony’s grasp for more general and accessible territory may have rendered his songs less powerful and moving.

It’s a matter of personal taste as to whether this album’s most striking track, ‘Dust and Water’, comes across as affecting or affected. Perhaps there is something irritating about the enunciation, not just in the way he insists on saying ‘mmmmhwatarr’ (as Alexis Petridis observed in The Guardian), but also in the way he says ‘dutttthhht’. This inevitably reminds me of Matt Lucas’ Marjorie Dawes character in Little Britain, undoubtedly an unintended association! If we accept these mannerisms in good faith though, there is something haunting and compelling about this piece. It sounds strange, mysterious and, most importantly, unexpected. Many have been calling for Antony to find a new context for his voice – but this does something both braver and more beguiling. It removes the context altogether.

A few more audacious gambits like this might have made ‘The Crying Light’ more distinctive. As it stands, it’s an assured and mostly understated work made by an artist of real talent. There’s something about it that means it doesn’t quite chime with me as much as its predecessor. Perhaps it’s the rather clichéd new-agey titles (‘One Dove’, ‘Everglade’, ‘Daylight and the Sun’, ‘Another World’ etc). There’s a nagging sense that all this quasi-pagan imagery is a little less individual and visionary than one might expect from Antony. It’s the kind of thing that Kate Bush and Bjork have both handled more adroitly. At its best, ‘The Crying Light’ is quietly mesmerising and repeated plays are revealing further rewards, but it might be one of those albums I’ll come to admire more than like.

1 comment:

Demob Happy said...

Hi Daniel,
I too was one of those listeners who have become a bit immune to Anthony's vocals, which can be a bit of an obstacle given their prominence in the mix. I noted some interesting musical progression on the Another World EP, particulalry the stripped-down 'Shake that Devil’, but a move from transgenderism to new age concerns probably isn't going to reel me in. Great review though !
James