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Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light

on January 13, 2009, 9:35am
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Even if you’ve never picked up an Antony and the Johnsons release, you’ve probably heard Antony Hegarty, the group’s front man. In the last several years he’s worked with Rufus Wainwright, CoCoRosie, Björk, and, perhaps most prominently, Hercules and Love Affair. Caution: Hagerty’s work under his band’s moniker Antony and the Johnsons sounds nothing like those collaborations.

If you’ve heard any of these guest spots, you’ve noticed that Hegarty voice stands alone in modern music. It has its fans and probably even more detractors, but no one mistakes him for another musician. His soulful wailings are in the vein of an androgynous Nina Simone born into the wrong decade.

The band’s newest release, The Crying Light, comes nine years after its eponymous debut and four years after the breakthrough I Am a Bird Now. Very few sonic changes have occurred over the course of the albums, as Hegarty voice and sparse piano still remain central to the songs. Soft strings accompany many tracks, augmenting Hegarty sorrow and mercifully avoiding sentimental, soundtrack-like swells.

Lyrically, Hegarty creates Gothic images that are so absurd, they’d probably fall flat sung by anyone else. Yet, because of his gut-wrenching vocals, absurdity seems appropriate. “Epilepsy is dancing, she’s a Christ now departing / and I’m finding my rhythm as I twist in the snow” only works because his own swirling voice engulfs every word, pushing the drama level over the top so that you can’t dismiss it. For such a quiet album, The Crying Light seems intent to shove as many theatrics into your ears as possible.

Unlike I Am a Bird Now, which had guest spots from Lou Reed, Devandra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright, and Boy George, The Crying Light is all Antony and the Johnsons. While the previous album was one of 2005’s strongest, it often played like a side project where Hegarty invited his best friends to drop by the studio. This time, no guest star slips in to steal the spotlight and jar the listener. From beginning to end, it’s an Antony and the Johnsons album, cohesive and succinct. Each track builds on the melancholy of the previous so that you’re fatigued by the end.

The album sets out to convey the complicated emotions that come from broken hearts, fleeting love, and mortality—as they all exist in one crowded space. Listen to “Daylight and the Sun” and tell me you don’t understand just what Hegarty is feeling in that moment. Yet, 39 minutes of unrelenting pain leaves you wanting a little diversion once in a while. Not that this should be a happy album, but several listens later and a few songs still don’t have any distinguishing features. They tell a beautiful story, but their sound is interchangeable and could be featured on either of the band’s previous LPs. “One Dove”, for example, lingers with its lazy horns, but doesn’t stand out when the album wraps up seven tracks later.

The Crying Light is a good album, but it’s not a great one. You can hear Hegarty growing as an artist with a unique (literal and figurative) voice who is trying to execute his vision. Still, I can’t help but feel that a fourth full-length album in this vein will feel like a rehash. A single listen to The Crying Light proves it’s not a lazy effort and repeated listens definitely reveal some hidden beauty, but I want more. And I know Hegarty is capable of delivering more, so I’ll keep hope for the next release and enjoy this one in the interim.

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