Discard the descriptors “heavenly”/”angelic”/”divine,” befitting as they may be for the music of Antony Hegarty; these belong to the domain of the sky-god, a place of cruel judgment and exclusion for those who, whether because of differences in sexuality or gender identification or whatever else, are denied the humanity allotted to those who conform within the punishing systems of patriarchal monotheism. Antony, who’s trying to appropriate these sorts of terms and spiritual iconographies for his own subversive purposes, is obviously unsatisfied with such a restrictive and potentially harmful framework, memorably articulating why in Cut the World’s informative standout track “Future Feminism.”
I’ll be honest: I have my finger ready on the skip button after the wearying first few listens of a hip-hop skit; I was skeptical when I realized, partway through “Future Feminism,” that not only would this be the only unheard-as-of-yet track on the album, but that there would be no musical accompaniment, simply a seven-minute monologue delivered with Antony’s customary grace and good humor. (The other new song, “Cut the World,” is from the opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, so while technically unreleased, it’s not unique to this project.) But music-less or not, “Future Feminism’s” content is integral for tying together Cut the World thematically, and it also gives us a welcome new perspective on Antony’s sometimes-cryptic lyrical explorations of the relationship between femininity, deities, and the environment; there’s enough material here to require more than one or two listens to unpack.
Reading in greater detail what Gore Vidal (RIP) had to say about the damaging effects of “sky-god” religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) helps clarify why Antony is advocating for a shift from patriarchal systems of governance to matriarchal ones. Check this 2008 quote by Pope Benedict, perhaps the moment’s most visible and despicable representative of patriarchal monotheism, paraphrased here by Antony: “The marriage of gays and lesbians was as much a threat to the future of our world as the collapse of the rainforests.” Contrast that with Vidal’s remark from a 1992 Lowell Lecture: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Working off Vidal’s summation, Antony suggests a more feminine outlook — a solution I was initially resistant to, less for its flipped-switch simplicity than for its binary conception of gendered identity markers (before realizing it was more of a thought experiment, and a pretty one at that) — one focused on nurturance over aggression, to counter the viewpoints of the monotheistic sky-god religions that, as Vidal mentioned, are constructed around violence and can foment homophobia and the mistreatment of women.
After “Cut the World” and “Future Feminism,” the next 10 tracks are reworked live versions of the band’s older material, recorded over two days in Copenhagen with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. The already-baroque instrumentation is bigger, the layered strings sing with greater intensity, and, like the complex emotions evoked by his speech, Antony’s expressive voice wrings out notes alternately plaintive, hopeful, resigned, or whatever momentary shift in mood is required of him.
Avoiding the cold cash-grab feel of a greatest hits collection, the songs gathered here have warmth and purpose; there’s an urgency and order to their selection, an invigoration as much due to the live symphony orchestra as “Future Feminism’s” contextualizations. Antony’s fixation on female Christs — in the present “Epilepsy Is Dancing” (and the omitted “Salt Silver Oxygen” from Swanlights, so seemingly relevant its exclusion is a missed opportunity to reinforce the message) — is suddenly much clearer; the transparent ecological message of “Another World” (“I’m gonna miss the sea/ I’m gonna miss the snow” and so on) becomes cautionary instead of defeatist. Cut the World may not be essential Antony and the Johnsons, but it’s a recapitulant compilation of some of their strongest songs, in some of their strongest iterations, while presenting stimulating ideas for reconsidering their music and our own planet.