Antony & The Johnsons emerged on the international stage in 2005 with their breakthrough "I Am A Bird Now." His first new material since 2006 is a prelude to the new full-length, "The Crying Light", coming in January 2009. Of the project, Antony said, "I wanted to mark this moment very clearly in my life. I love and feel so anchored by the natural world, which gave birth to me, which supplies and supports my life, this experience of color and light and aching beauty. But the world is changing so fast now. 'Another World' is a song for the present but also a song for the future. What have I lost? And what is to come?"
Antony and the Johnsons:
Another World EP
[Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade; 2008]
At first, Antony and the Johnsons' follow-up to 2005's sublime I Am a Bird Now seems cut from the same cloth as that Mercury Prize-winning breakthrough. Bird's cover reveled in arty downtown grotesquerie with a portrait of Warhol muse Candy Darling on her deathbed. Another World's cover features another left-field theatrical legend, the butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno. Both images handily allude to the morbid singer's dramatic cabaret and gender fluidity.
Furthering the correspondence, both albums open with piano-driven prayers for death, which, in Antony's parlance, can be interpreted as references to transformation more than physical demise. On Bird, it was "Hope There's Someone", where the identity-obsessed singer feared neither life nor death, but "the middle place/ Between light and nowhere." On Another World, it's the title track, which finds him similarly stranded in transition-- "I need another world/ This one's nearly gone"-- while preemptively missing the plants, animals, and people of the world he's straining to escape. In other words, it's metamorphosis he both craves and fears, and both songs are perfectly poised between those two emotions.
"Hope There's Someone" climaxed with a churning piano that implied the moment of passage, but "Another World" has no such epiphany. The tentative melody tiptoes behind distant feedback, never climaxing and never resolving. This is important because it represents the major difference between Bird and Another World-- on the former, Antony shook the rafters with his multi-tiered voice at regular intervals, but here he's more restrained. "Shake that bird right out of me," he murmurs on "Shake that Devil", clipping his own wings to find out what he can do at ground level, down here with the rest of us. At first, Another World sounds like a handful of what would have been deep cuts on Bird, and you might miss the flashy crescendos. But it only takes a few spins to get over that and discover these remarkable songs for what they are.
Antony has been compared to Arthur Russell for his downtown affiliations and the elaborate fragility of his voice. Here, he really earns that comparison, not just echoing Russell's Another Thought with the EP's title, but with the eclectic set pieces it contains. I Am a Bird Now spanned gospel, doo-wop, and R&B, but Antony's vocal histrionics often overshadowed genre specificity; Bird sounds downright monolithic compared to Another World's five concise songs. Their bare-bones arrangements put the emphasis right where it should be-- on Antony's lush, quavering voice, which can now keep apace without hysterics-- and profit from an ambiguity that fits his mercurial persona to a T.
Anyone who thinks Antony's devoid of humor should consider to lyrics like "Poor me/ Little rivers from my hands pool at the bottom of the stairs." That self-skewering yet heartfelt line launches "Crackagen", and implies a streak of self-awareness. With just a "poor me" at the beginning, the personal mythology Antony stages amid sustain-heavy piano and drawling strings (there are cities in his eyes; rainwater in his father's) gains an arch undertone to its stirring melodrama. "Shake that Devil" is a terrific hybrid of Xiu Xiu-style drone-pop, revival-tent gospel, and free-jazz horn skronk-- the tautest, leanest song in Antony's catalog. Its metaphysical barnyard lyrics could easily fit on a Joanna Newsom record; it essentially amounts to a casting out of malevolent spirits-- a secular exorcism that often seems to be Antony's primary motivation for making music.
Antony writes songs for the sake of escaping, either personally or by proxy, from whatever image of him they capture. Forget Arthur Russell for a sec: He's half Scott Walker, half Harry Houdini. On the halting ballad "Sing for Me", he builds a garden wall only to vanish over it, and on the uplifting madrigal "Hope Mountain", the titular peak is a nest for "scores of soaring eagles," making it a mere launching pad for things that leave, things that change. This EP is a teaser for a forthcoming full-length, which will surely give us yet another incarnation of Antony. Even now, this new record represents an afterimage or whatever trace of himself Antony could capture while rifling through different guises. But we all know a little something about chasing that ideal version of ourselves, and Antony's persistence in the face of futility makes it a joy to run by his side.
- Brian Howe, October 8, 2008