Antony and The Johnsons The Crying Light

[Secretly Canadian; 2009]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: torch songs, cabaret, jazz, classical, avant garde
Others: Nina Simone, Rachel’s, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (the ballads), Scott Walker

When I first heard Antony and The Johnson’s Another World EP, there was a recoiling that happened. Perhaps because there’s such a shock in hearing music so alien yet so nakedly human. I suppose I don’t reach for this music all too often. In fact, seven times out of ten I probably skip him when he comes up on shuffle. Listening to music is a personal thing, no matter what. It’s something that we have to take for granted in order to get through the day without embarrassing ourselves. And Antony’s music, if I let it, completely destroys me. Perhaps it’s a character defect. Sobriety and Antony can only go so far. This music drugs me with aches and fevers of the most acute sort. It could be elegant and soothing in some sense, but it’s too urgent, too gut-wrenching, too sincere to not break my heart every time I hear it. But once immersed, it’s hard not to feel privileged to be roiling in such implacable wretchedness.

The orchestration on The Crying Light is breathtakingly gorgeous. The woodwinds, harpsichord, and impossibly soft-strings percussion on “One Dove” (his keen lilting of “Mercy, mercy” is one of his most indelible refrains yet) are so lush and perfectly arranged as to make his words seem injected into your blood. There’s an instrumental break (2:53-3:44) that just absolutely slays with its sadness. Towards the song’s end, with Antony singing “Eyes open, shut your eyes,” things get really spooky, with a discordant flutter rainforest creature-like noises. This song is incredible. It can be played again and again and again and still never lose its power. “The Crying Light” is another highlight, featuring droning strings and acoustic guitar and castanets and the usual piano and a slipping sense of time that shoots a chill when he scramblingly repeats the song’s title at the end.

These are exquisite tomes, mournings, longings that are difficult to contextualize without reducing. The lyrical content of “Another World” (as sparse and endless-sounding as the preceding song) is not revelatory, but there is nothing to be gained from separating yourself from its sentiment. You need only feel your way through the song. I give Antony credit for making a reviewer’s job so difficult. Once the contextual references are exhausted (there is still, at times, a very Lynchian, defiantly simplistic lyrical approach), there is only the sense of swelling and receding, hoping and letting go. Dreaming and waking only to continue dreaming with eyes open. It’s transcendence. There’s no room for nitpicking about any of it. Is it overblown? No it’s not. Is it precious? Yes, but not in the pejorative sense. Is it predictable? Yes. It’s predictably fantastic.

The main evolution from I Am a Bird Now is an increased richness in the music. Antony was always an incredible singer, at his most moving when it sounds like he’s throwing out the book. His comparatively flat shouting of “Hold that boy I love so much!” during the climax of “Aeon” seemed distracting at first, then it forced me to remember what that kind of love can feel like -- ungainly, illogical, desperate, and too real. But, as was evident on the preceding EP, there has been a strikingly intricate refining of The Johnsons’ sonic palette. There is a sharply intuitive use of stillness and ambient swells that brings to mind the best Rachel’s and Stars of the Lid material. There are also more moments of dissonance, creating intrigue and uncertainty that charmingly undermine the more ornate passages.

Bear in mind that the conceptuality of this record is very personal -- you need no context to appreciate its sentiments. These are sad songs, and the lyrics are occasionally difficult to decipher, but the presentation is one of rapture -- and poetic fixation. If you let it work its magic, it will -- no matter how unfashionable or cloying it may seem at a glance. It’s music to get absorbed by. It's music to tamp down the cynicism and doubt that dogs us in our daily existence. Embrace the wonder, that moment that we can finally simply feel. It may be wretched, but it’s who we are and another example of what gives us strength of character. It makes sense that the artist comes across as very decorum-oriented in interviews. No one could walk around with this kind of passion and get through the day without it.

1. Here Eyes Are Underneath the Ground
2. Epilepsy Is Dancing
3. One Dove
4. Kiss My Name
5. The Crying Light
6. Another World
7. Daylight and the Sun
8. Aeon
9. Dust and Water
10. Everglade

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