The first thing that will strike you about listening to The Crying Light, the latest release from Antony and the Johnsons, is the almost ridiculously heartbreaking beauty of the whole affair. Antony Hegarty’s voice falls somewhere between male and female, which is pretty much what he’s going for in real life, too.
The timbre of his voice defies sexual characterization just as surely as he does — he models himself roughly after “Blue Velvet”-era Isabella Rossellini and brings some of the asexuality and emotionality of Morrissey — and creates a kind of ethereal opera of universal dreaminess.
The spare, minimalist accompaniment by the Johnsons is the perfect counterpoint to Antony, floating in and out of obscenely elegant orchestral arrangements that serve as sonic tone poems over which Antony weaves complex symbolism about mortality and loss.
The thing that makes this album so great is not the content of the lyrics, but their deliverance: When Antony sings about loss, you feel as though a ghost has passed through the room and sucked you emotionally dry.
A perfect example comes on the first track of the album, “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground.” Antony’s piano and a cello gently waltz together, falling in and out of harmony with a time signature that could be reasonably described as measured, while Antony explores the thematic regions between life and death, birth and rebirth and other issues weighty in the universal sense of the word.
Following that is the elegant chamber-pop of “Epilepsy Is Dancing,” which once again keeps the lush orchestral arrangements that manage to convey depth and meaning while simultaneously getting the hell out of the way for Antony to do his vocal thing.
It is somewhat unfair to pick a highlight from this album, but if I had to, I would go with the uptempo “Kiss My Name,” on which Antony lightly floats through sauntering drums that double as the only remotely danceable thing about the album. “Aeon” would probably come in second place, with Antony’s voice rising to the power that it only hints at the rest of the album, as he once again explores the in-between spaces.
It is a testament to the skill of his performance and also his songwriting that Antony manages to repeatedly use words as pretentious as “grave” and “womb” without falling into the same territory as, say, Saul Williams might if he tried to record a similarly “significant” album.
Basically, every depressed 15-year-old needs to listen to this album as the absolute apex of what their shitty poetry could potentially be, realize that it already exists and stop posting things with titles that they will find stupid and embarrassing three months down the road on their LiveJournals. Not to say that Antony’s songs deal with those same issues, just that they use a similar vocabulary, but in such an efficient and understated way that their impact is fully felt as that of a capital-a Artist rather than some depressive and depressing incoherent ramblings. Also, Antony explores more of the spaces between life and death than any 15-year-old would even think to, so that analogy pretty much totally falls apart there… Just keep and mind that they’re using the same language.
Thematically, the cover of the album (depicting legendary Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno) makes all kinds of sense. Once considered the best dancer of her kind in the world, Butoh Ohno is now completely paralyzed and over 100 years of age. This perfection, the gap between her former (and still mentally present) ability to perfectly perform complex steps and her current physical inability to move even a finger, is exactly the type of thing Antony examines with this album. I personally cannot imagine a more perfect reflection on these themes, nor a more perfect realization of a minimalist orchestral vision.