The follow-up to "I Am A Bird Now" shifts thematic focus and explores Antony's relationship with the natural world. The intimacy of the Johnsons' sound is enveloped by avant-classical composer Nico Muhly's symphonic arrangements.
Review by Thom Jurek
The black-and-white image of legendary Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno that adorns the cover of The Crying Light, the third full-length by Antony and the Johnsons, seems to offer a view of a being enveloped in both ecstasy and agony -- or does it? The songs contained here offer something else: a glimpse of a universe beyond the pale of vision, seen only by the individual experiencing it. Antony Hegarty recorded and considered 25 songs for inclusion on The Crying Light, before settling on ten. The Johnsons are the inimitable cellist Julia Kent, Thomas Bartlett, Maxim Moston, Rob Moose, Jeff Langston, Parker Kindred, Doug Wieselman, and Will Holshouser. The additional orchestra includes Greg Cohen, Suzy Perelman, Tim Albright, and Lisa Albrecht, to name a few. Hegarty and composer Nico Muhly did the string arrangements. The Crying Light preoccupies itself with very different concerns than either of its predecessors. Whereas the material on I Am a Bird Now focused on sadness -- grasped and projected -- and in some cases real redemption, these songs look at a larger universe as reflected in the mirror of the individual. The natural world, the vast landscape of interconnectivity with all things, seems to be the primary focus on which the individual protagonists focus their gazes. That doesn't mean that the viewpoint of the singer is necessarily more optimistic. If anything, the truth offered here, and there is plenty of it, is acceptance. Musically, the softness and restrained textural lushness -- always propelled by the intimate, mysterious, exploring piano of Hegarty -- is highlighted by his voice that bears the traces of every heartbreak ever confessed, every quiet yet desperate hope ever held, and each prayer whispered to an unknown and unknowable God.
Neo-classical underpinnings are entwined lovingly with broken pop songs and secretive after-hours cabaret poems. Check the opener, "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground." The piano and cello fall together as one slow dancer, alone in the spotlight, keeping memory as time: "In the garden, with my mother/I stole a flower/With my mother, in her power/I chose a flower/I saw six eyes glistening in my womb/I felt you calling me in the gloom/Rest assured your love is pure...." The power of Mother Nature as it echoes inside the individual with all of its power and impersonal tenderness is embraced, accepted for what it teaches as well as what it offers. Elsewhere, on the gorgeous chamber pop of "Epilepsy Is Dancing," terror, power, and beauty are wrapped as one entity: "Epilepsy is dancing/She's the Christ now departing/And I'm finding my rhythm/As I twist in the snow...Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner/Oh now it's passing/Oh now I'm dancing." Curse and blessing, sacrament and damnation. Other standouts, including the utterly gorgeous, elliptical "One Dove" and the single "Another World," reflect similar themes, though always from the projection of the most hidden flicker that seeks union with a larger illumination. Certainly this is spiritual, but it is not limited to that because it also exists in the physical world. Death is the constant undercurrent, but it's not so much morbid as another shade of the verdant universe. "Kiss My Name" is the hinge track, in waltz time with lovely reeds and violins, skittering with a drum kit -- it is both an anthem of love to life itself and a self-penned epitaph in advance. Whatever hopes you held in the aftermath of I Am a Bird Now, they have been exponentially exceeded in poetry, music, and honesty here.
Antony and the Johnsons:
The Crying Light
[Secretly Canadian; 2009]
The cover of The Crying Light, the third album by Antony and the Johnsons, is strikingly similar to that of its predecessor, 2005's highly-lauded I Am a Bird Now. The latter presented a stark black-and-white shot of transvestite performer Candy Darling lying on her hospital deathbed; this time, we get an even starker image of Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, a hero of bandleader Antony Hegarty since he first spotted her on a poster while studying in France as a teenager. As Ohno leans back, wrinkled and seemingly near death himself, the flower in his hair sits in the same position as the bright blooms that hover above Darling.
But it's the differences between these shots that say the most about The Crying Light. Much of what the Darling image represents-- gender identity, performance art, downtown New York circa Andy Warhol's Factory-- is reflected in I Am A Bird Now's stylistic range, as well as its use of guest artists who embody those subjects, like Lou Reed and Boy George. The symbolism of the Ohno picture is simpler. The dancer, cited by Hegarty as his role model for "getting older as an artist," is now 102 and can no longer move or speak; he's been cast into a limbo between life and death. "He really practiced his form until he couldn't move," Hegarty told The Wire magazine in December. "And then he kept taking the right steps inside himself."
On The Crying Light, Hegarty is fascinated with those steps-- the transitions and overlaps between birth and life, life and death, this world and the next. "From your skin I am born again," he sings in "One Dove", an ode to a bird from "the other side" that comes to "bring me some peace." Later, "Aeon" depicts eternity as a baby boy born to take care of his father, as time melts generations together. Similar concepts dot every song. With deft touch, Hegarty repeatedly uses words like "womb," "grave," and "light," and he returns to primal metaphors-- water as life, dust as death, the earth as a place of both burial and growth. "I'm only a child/ Born upon a grave," he insists in "Kiss My Name", nearly encapsulating the entire album in one potent declarative.
Though easier to summarize, these ideas are no less complex than those on I Am A Bird Now. In fact, they're larger and more universal than that album's New York-tinted perspective. But they have also inspired Hegarty to craft simpler, subtler songs. Simultaneously sparse and rich, The Crying Light mines maximum intensity from a relatively minimal mix of basic melodies, pithy lyrics, and understated arrangements. It may be difficult to believe that an album crediting four arrangers and upwards of two dozen musicians could sound minimal. But the way Hegarty selects their contributions is more about precision than volume, more about carefully-chosen moments than multiple voices. Take the dark cello that closes "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground", the soft horn flourish in the middle of "Epilepsy Is Dancing", the fingersnap-like clicks at the end of "The Crying Light". These elements hint at fuller, busier versions of these songs. Maybe Hegarty did record more fleshed-out takes and then erased portions, letting their echoes float in the limbo that he sings about. Whatever his process, Hegarty's use of orchestration for accent and emphasis creates undeniable power, the kind that increased sonic density likely would have lacked.
Of course, lots of power also comes from Hegarty's voice. What's most impressive about his singing isn't its range-- though his octave-gliding trill remains spellbinding-- but the way he consistently picks the right tone at the right time. On "Epilepsy Is Dancing", his hum crests into a shivery warble just as the song veers into surreal imagery. He flips the trick on "Daylight and the Sun," pulling back during the most plaintive lines ("Now I cry for daylight"), then purring fluidly through an unexpected epilogue. Most striking is "Dust and Water," a droning meditiation in which his lullaby tones seem sung in a foreign language, despite the plain English found on the lyric sheet.
The Crying Light ends with "Everglade", one of the tracks Hegarty co-arranged with classical composer Nico Muhly. Filled with lilting flutes, rising strings, and operatic croon, it might be the most overtly dramatic track in the Johnsons' oeuvre, like a rescued score from some lost musical. "When I'm peeping in a parlour of trees/ And the leaves are winking all around," he sings, "'I'm home," my heart sobs in my veins." That may read ultra-drippy, but on record it sounds decidedly profound-- a fully-earned approach to the precipice of the other world Hegarty has pondered for 40 fascinating minutes. In fact, the song's redemptive tone inspires similarly wild thoughts about the future. If Hegarty can craft an album this stunning about the path to paradise, just imagine how great the next one could sound, once he's actually there.
- Marc Masters, January 19, 2009