Antony Hegarty, the vocalist and enigmatic front man of Antony and the Johnsons, is something of a sui generis performer in popular music. One would need to look back to the glam rock of the ’70s to find musical personae who so indiscriminately traversed gender boundaries in their music. If you were lucky enough to discover Hegarty’s 2005 Mercury-winning album I Am a Bird Now, you’re already familiar with the enjoyment Hegarty takes in exploiting his androgyny to frustrate and even shock his listeners. His voice recalls Nina Simone’s, and in some of his songs he seems to don whichever gender he likes. In one of the album’s best tracks, “You Are My Sister,” Boy George joins Hegarty in a duet, cooing to Antony, comforting him as one “sister” to another.
Four years after I Am a Bird Now, Hegarty has returned with The Crying Light, a haunting album of introspection and melancholy. Fans expecting a rehash of the same gender-centered themes in their 2005 release will be disappointed. Here, gender is replaced with sadness and beautiful imagery, merging lyrics about trees and oceans with poignant and painful confessions of loss and disappointment. The track titles alone are enough to impart the album’s strange sensibilities: “Epilepsy is Dancing” (Epilepsy is dancing/ She’s the Christ now departing/ And I’m finding my rhythm / As I twist in the snow), or “Kiss My Name,” a song in which the speaker laments his own death, referring to himself as the “coal I became.” The evocatively titled “Her Eyes are Beneath the Ground,” is the masterpiece on this album. Here the imagery—“I saw six eyes glistening in my womb” and “her eyes are basking in the sun”—is not only gripping, but also perfectly articulated in Antony’s chilling delivery. Listen, for instance, to the way Hegarty sings the refrain “Ocean, swallow me whole” and emphasizes the second syllable of every word, forming a line of iambic trimeter that simultaneously links the sound of the words to the sense they are supposed to evoke.
Many of the songs are just as effectively arranged. Strings and pianos abound, creating the perfect ambience. The austere arrangements on songs like “Aeon” complement the senses of loss and bereavement that emanate from the lyrics and vocal phrasings. Not all the songs work so perfectly as the aforementioned tracks. “Everglade” and “One Dove” lack the compelling arrangements the listener comes to expect, given the treasury of rich songs on this wonderful album. The Crying Light is a major creative breakthrough for the band, and it also happens to be the first great album of 2009.
— Dmitri Leybman