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Listening Party: Antony and the Johnsons, The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)

January 21, 2009

Roughly two minutes and 45 seconds into “Aeon,” Antony Hegarty repeats a verse ending line with such an emphatic purpose that the breath halts just thinking about it. The first time Hegarty, the lead singer and doughty focal point of New York’s dour-mood unit Antony and the Johnsons, digs into “Hold that man I love so much,” his arrestingly warbling baritone theatrically haunts the spectral melody the way it has since the group’s 2000 self-titled debut. Hegarty’s immediate reprisal, though, strips the line of its perfectly timed artfulness, shoving an impish, uncontrollable insistence into a tune previously content to paint the sky with intergalactic yearning.

This moment comes in the middle of the eighth of 10 songs on the new The Crying Light, Antony and the Johnsons’ third album–the first since the band’s 2005 Mercury Prize winning breakout I Am a Bird Now. This time out, though, Hegarty handles almost all of the vocal duties, unaided by Bird‘s supporting cast of musical marquee names with voices almost as singular as his own (Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Boy George, Devdendra Banhart). Light is also more musically slight, with arrangements featuring but a cello softly conversing with a piano or a keening violin setting the tone for a gentle guitar line.

Hegarty extracts the same high drama from this extreme minimalism, and at times pushes the emotional melodrama toward crippling extremes without tipping over into the outright maudlin. Light is a far bleaker album in mood than Bird but also a more accessibly empathetic listen. The band has somehow found a way to transcend Bird‘s emotional time-warp to early 1980s downtown New York and the imminent culture wars even while making music so depressing that listening to the album feels like an instinctive, visceral reminder than we’re all hurtling toward the grave.

That little pirouette of change is a welcome twist to the Johnsons, though, as far too much of Light feels too instantly familiar. Yes, Hegarty’s voice–the otherworldly love child of Maria Callas and Billy Paul–is still Nico cold and Scott Walker entrancing, and nothing else comes close to it in mainstream pop or the online underground. Yes, the Johnsons can still make austere melodies sound as inconsequential yet strong as a spider’s web. And, yes, Hegerty still sings about time’s inexorable passing, metaphorical and actual departures, and the sometimes unbearable loneliness of occupying your own skin.

It’s exactly what the Johnsons delivered on Bird and the four EPs released since, which makes the group’s alchemy feel a bit too measured. In fact, when the group covered the David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti-penned Julee Cruise tune “Mysteries of Love” from Blue Velvet, its very modest alteration from the original’s ephemeral dreaminess suggested the sources of the band’s very DNA.

And so the familiarly abstruse artiness of Light tracks “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground,” “Another World,” “One Dove,” and the ambient ode “Dust and Water,” a levitating-in-limbo mood begging to be put in a Lynchian cinematic world. These are the expected songs from an Antony and the Johnsons album, as consistently bankable as LeBron James is for Cleveland Cavaliers fans. Trouble is, these diamonds aren’t as arresting as they were when first encountered on Bird–or Antony and the Johnsons for that matter. Like a jeweled family heirloom, the gemstone retains its brilliance but familiarity has dulled the luster.

It’s a feeling amplified by Hegarty’s appearance on last year’s Hercules and the Love Affair’s posh disco digs, where the knee-knocking vulnerability of his voice was exponentially amplified by the change of musical setting. Squishy beats and a slinking bass line offered Hegarty a different backdrop to respond to, and he answered with some of his more instantly affecting vocal performances.

Which is why Light‘s best moments are when the Johnsons provide Hegarty with something a little different. “Epilepsy is Dancing” finds the group stitching together an earthy, early Fairport Convention folk behind Hegarty’s jaunty vocal that winds death around desire, singing “As I came to a screaming/ Hold me while I’m dreaming/ For my fingers are curling/ And I cannot breathe,” at a gentle lullaby pace. Composer Nico Muhly’s string arrangements give the gorgeous “Everglade” a symphonic sweep that cushions Hegarty’s exultant delivery of “Fingers kiss the string/ mouth taste the blade/ of everglade.”

The album’s finest moments, though, are also the most atypical. “Kiss My Name” continues Hegarty’s moony romantic knack for casting intimacy into tangible matter–recall Bird‘s thorny “Fistful of Love” and the debut’s “Deeper Than Love”–but places these swooning sentiments inside a perky melody. (Perky in the sense that Tindersticks and the Dirty Three can occasionally be upbeat, not insipid Katie Perry perk.) A violin gently follows Hegarty throughout the tune, like a flitting sparrow helping Cinderella prepare for the big dance.

The stunner here, though, is unquestionably “Aeon,” a song of Spartan power and beauty. It opens with a solitary piano line, sounding like it’s going to progress straight into a familiarly Johnsonsesque dirge. Thirty seconds in, though, and electric guitar takes up the skeletal tune, and Hegarty swings in as if channeling Billie Holliday breathing “God Bless the Child” to life. Aeon is the song narrator’s baby boy, a child that will eventually hold the narrator in his journey into the next life. Yes, “Aeon” is an outright spiritual, complete with gospel-like backing choir vocals and a swaying melody that’s more spirit world than the profane one. The Crying Light captures a group and songwriter fully in command of its strength in musical slightness and emotional heaviness, but what makes Antony and the Johnsons something special are those few instances when it escapes that narrow window and goes chasing after something else.

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