Antony and the Johnsons: “The Crying Light”
For as long as Anthony Hegarty has been making music– or at the very least, ever since he released the Mercury Prize-winning I Am a Bird Now— his music has been inseparable from his personal identity. That’s not so much because critics and fans have celebrated his persona over his art, but because he’s made that persona an intregal part of his art, crafting his songs and even selecting his guest appearances on other artists’ records with his status (or at least his demenor) as an outsider firmly in mind. Even when he’s at his most theatrical, there is always some reflection of his emotional or psychological state lurking just beneath the spectacle and the facade of his art. In fact, so bold was the mark of the auteur on I Am a Bird Now that even its cover, a black and white shot of the transsexual Warhol associate Candy Darling on her deathbed, seemed intricately tied to the singer’s own feelings about his life and his sexuality, which, of course, carried over into the music.
Naturally, then, when Hegarty prepared to release his third album with his band the Johnsons, The Crying Light, its cover art– another striking black and white shot, this time of the 102-year-old Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno– garned a fair shair of speculation, its ambiguous portrayal of either ectasy or torment prompting critics to wonder what the photo, both similar and decidedly different than the one on Bird, said about Antony’s aspirations with these ten new songs. But this time, it isn’t the art itself so much as Hegarty’s explanation that provides the most insight into this music: The singer has said that Ohno is an inspiration to him for demonstating how to age gracefully, prompting Hegarty himself to feel more comfortable with growing a bit older. And fittingly, The Crying Light— which is dedicated to Ohno– feels enlivened by that inspiring spirit, with Antony sounding both more mature and more self-assured than ever before, making an album that is his most sophisticated and graceful to date.
That he is a singer who carries himself with dignity and elegance needs not be reiterated; Hegarty has been anything but dormant since releasing Bird, becoming the indie world’s version of Emmylou Harris by showing up to lend guest vocals to seemingly endless projects, most notedly acting as the voice for the celebrated disco troupe Hercules and Love Affair in 2008. But here, he proves himself to be an artist of previously unimagined restraint and technical grace, crafting an achingly delicate, beautiful collection of string-laden chamber pop songs, each of them a showcase for his distinctive warble but also his expressive piano playing. Every song here is understated and exquisite, and Hegarty handles each one with a nimble, light touch while the Johnsons provide stately support with strings, reeds, and light percussion. It’s completely out of time, and the closest antecedent in recent indie history is Shearwater’s fanciful Rook, but where that album alternated between intense quiet and deafening fury, The Crying Light is unflinching in its pursuit of a meditative, almost sacred sound.
And yet, what is most distinctive about the album– and about the cover photo– is in how Antony looks outside of himself. If the artwork of I Am a Bird Now reflected Antony as he is, the shot of Kazuo Ohma is a dream of who he desires to be, and indeed, this is music that peaks outside as a way of looking inside. Its greatest trick is one that Hegarty borrows from Romantic poets like William Blake and Percy Shelley– namely, the way that it focuses on the natural world as a way of reflecting the internal world. And so, these songs are pastoral, spiritual, and vivid in their evocation of the physical, created world, which, of course, leads to some nervous speculation as to the planet’s future and some grief at the beauty we’ve already lost– “Another World,” in which a mournful Antony pleads for a new creation to replace this current, marred one, is a key song to unlocking the album’s mystery. But it is by no means a work dominated by environmental concerns, for these musings serve as a vehicle for Hegarty’s own meditations on love, sorrow, God, and more.
The tone is initially very dark and somber, but the songs gradually reveal themselves to posess some of the same ambiguity as that cover image; though there is much grief here, there are also moments of surprising joy, of hope, of fervent prayer and desire. And throughout it all, Antony and his bandmates play and sing with an organic grace and a poetic honesty that cause the record to unfold with an uncommon and deep emotional resonance. The great irony, of course, is that the album ends up saying more about Hegarty, both as a man and as an artist, then he’s ever been comfortable revealing in the past, all while it opens the gates and allows the whole world entrance, resulting in a work of art that’s as warm in its embrace as it is unsettling in its fragile intimacy.