February 2009

Essays

Nature boy

By Robert Forster
Nature boy
Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘The Crying Light’

Four years ago, while on a promotional tour for the last Go-Betweens record, I came across Antony and the Johnsons’ second album. I was in Amsterdam and had asked our local record-company rep how our album was being received, to be told, in typically abrupt Dutch fashion, “Well – but the album everyone is excited about is this,” as he handed me a copy of the yet-to-be-released I Am a Bird Now. My first opportunity to hear it was the next day, on our hopping trip, as I was driven through the streets of suburban Milan. Antony Hegarty’s searing voice and the exquisite melancholy of the songs seemed to float up to the apartment buildings I saw out of the corner of the taxi window. It was a singular experience, and one that wedded the first hearing to a landscape and situation from which I can never separate the record. Almost four years later, a journalist friend in Munich tells me that he has an advance copy of the new Antony and the Johnsons album. I travel there to pick it up, and bring it back to the small village in Bavaria where I am temporarily staying. I put on The Crying Light and it is the first day of snow: white-covered pine trees as if dipped in sugar, snow on the fields, the sky a clear-cut blue. Again, Antony’s voice, another cycle of songs; but this time a new landscape.

The voice is the first thing you hear, tremulous and aching, the four-year wait ending with the sudden reintroduction of Antony’s finest gift. He entrances you, as all great singers do, and much of the enjoyment of the album – even in its more demanding moments – comes from the quality of his singing. And the voice is very much at the centre of this record, for where I Am a Bird Now, with its fuller instrumentation and illustrious guest singers (from Boy George to Rufus Wainwright), was more of a group effort, The Crying Light has the feel of a solo album. Antony takes lead vocal on all ten songs and his accompanying piano is the one strong musical constant throughout, with the only other major shading coming from Philip Glass protégé Nico Muhly’s eccentric and playful string arrangements. This is an album of ballad confessionals, from a singer who can channel Nina Simone and early Bryan Ferry at will, in language that would make the most star-crossed of poets blush.

And it’s a very difficult album to judge. The problem is the completeness of Antony’s vision and the seal he puts upon it through his singing and songs. The question you find yourself asking is: How does this record stack up against the last one? The narcotic pull of The Crying Light means that is a hard judgement to make. When you can extricate yourself from the music, a few insights are forthcoming. Firstly, the last record had better songs. They were more traditional, with clearer pop/soul structures; there will be those who will champion the abstraction of the new songs, but the first five numbers (at least) of I Am a Bird Now are simply peerless. Also, I Am a Bird Now had a strong narrative and as unorthodox as it seemed to be – the search by someone who describes himself as transgender for sexual- and self-identity, through songs such as ‘My Lady Story’ and ‘Man Is the Baby’ – the quest, the cry of who-am-I, has always had a place in music, rock music especially. The Crying Light lacks the once-in-a-lifetime run of songs, and the joy and wonder that came from hearing Antony’s high, honey-toned voice for the first time. But he is tenacious and smart – those who find fame in their mid thirties usually are – and the four-year gap between albums seems part of a considered retreat before releasing a record that is surprising in both subject matter and delivery.

For all the differences between albums, The Crying Light has a similar shape to its predecessor. Ten songs clock in at just under 40 minutes. As though to emphasise that the intensity of Antony can only be taken in short bursts, the better songs are first, before a slight trailing off and a return with a poignant, great last song. The mood, though, is all, and where I Am a Bird Now went out to greet and grip, the new album is coiled and inward-looking. This has its charm, but it’s a slow burn. The song that should start the album, ‘Kiss My Name’, with its kick and chorus, is track four – coming after three ballads. But it’s more than that: it’s the delicate haiku-like lyrics, the sheer sparseness of the sound, and the vision which is contemplative and mysterious and close to that most inward of all things, the heart. It is also telling that one song which could have broken the spell, ‘Shake that Devil’, an up-tempo bluesy romp, was left off the album to grace the 2008 Another World EP.

In interviews Antony has said that he writes songs in cycles. The I Am a Bird Now songs, staggeringly enough, date to the mid nineties (which is a long time to sit on classics); a second, as-yet-unreleased cycle exists from the late nineties; and the songs for the current album were written after 2001. This explains the punch of the I Am a Bird Now material, as the first good songs of a songwriter often have a uniqueness and directness that can be hard to recapture. The gap also explains why The Crying Light and its predecessor don’t talk to each other in the way that successive albums usually do. (And it is to Antony’s credit that he has not taken the more recent songs and tried to force them into the mould of the previous successful record.) Finally, Antony is based in New York, and the Crying Light songs sound like much post-September-11 art: sombre, quietly spoken, yearning for serenity, and focused on big symbols tied to the source of peace and order and renewal – in the natural world.

A key song, and the album’s single, is ‘Another World’. It is the sixth track and a simpler, almost anthemic distillation of all that has come before: “I need another place / will there be peace? / I need another world / this one’s nearly gone.” This is the core of the record and it is no surprise that the only goodbyes offered in the following verses are to the trees, the sun and the animals. It is hard to remember an album so fixated on the elements and so devoid of everyday human touch; when people or spirits enter, they are evoked in such over-dramatised language that they are almost abstractions. ‘Daylight and the Sun’, which follows, attempts to kick the morbidity, bursting in with “How I cry for daylight” as an opening line. At six minutes it is the longest song on the record, and once again restoration and refuge are linked to nature. It is as if the sensitivities that once gave voice to the anguished longings and confusions of sexual identity now express an urge for survival, with this no better encapsulated than in a verse from ‘Everglade’, the gorgeous final song: “When I’m peeping in a parlour of trees / And the leaves are winking all around / ‘I’m home,’ my heart sobs in my veins.”

This is a beautiful album, and those coming to Antony and the Johnsons for the first time will find it glittering and arresting and it will appear like nothing else on the horizon. Antony’s song-poems will beguile, and his voice will melt you. But for those who know and love I Am a Bird NowThe Crying Light will be elusive. It is far more an art-based album: the strings winding off after the end of songs, the absence of bass and drums, the bizarreness and strong poetry of the lyrics all attest to that. And in a way, it’s a burning-off of ambition, too, or perhaps that is what it will seem to those with a more rock or pop orientation. It fits the new landscape, though – perfectly. Indoors, but still chilly. Happy to look at the world in its winter colours.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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