Antony Hegarty commands a flawless trill that is easily one of the most compelling voices in contemporary music, and it lends itself well to the kind of theatrical storytelling that Antony and the Johnsons have become known for. Cut the World, Hegarty and his collaborators’ newest release, is a collection of live, symphonic performances of songs from four full-length albums, and the full-bodied rendering fits the material perfectly. With help from the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Hegarty bridges the gap, in some small way, between artist and listener, cutting out the middleman of the recording studio. The result is frequently breathtaking, and always satisfactory.
Just as many of the band’s old standards are here (“Cripple and the Starfish” and ”I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” both get the full-service symphony treatment), and so are all of their usual themes. The more subtle ecological and cultural messages of Swanlights and The Crying Light become explicit in Cut the World in the form of “Future Feminism”, a speech Hegarty made to the audience during one of the collaboration concerts. “I truly believe that unless we move into feminine systems of governance, we don’t have a chance on this planet,” he tells a receptive audience. While this is heavy stuff for a chamber pop concert, the strength of Hegarty’s convictions are behind much of his music, and to embrace one is to be left without much choice but to embrace the other. Hegarty’s avant-garde-ness isn’t just about his fluid sexuality and gender identity, but also his propensity to lay everything on the table and build awareness in his listeners. Sure, Mick Jagger and David Bowie may have slept together in the 70’s, but they never tried to build a political movement around it.
Ultimately, “Cut the World” is a successful experiment, with tracks like “The Rapture” realizing the full potential inherent in more stripped-down album versions. The title track is a stunner, marrying Hegarty’s lush imagery (“My eyes are coral, absorbing your dreams”) with well-placed flourishes from a strings section. It was written, appropriately enough, for a new musical, even though it feels as though Hegarty and Co. have been enacting a living piece of musical theater for most of their career.
Essential Tracks: “Cut the World”, “The Rapture”