Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light

Antony and the Johnsons
The Crying Light

(Secretly Canadian)

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Mon April 13, 2009, 05:55 PM CDT

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The Crying Light is a difficult album to assess. In some respects, it is brilliant. It also represents the crystallization of Antony Hegarty’s artistic vision. In other ways, however, it is a somewhat flawed effort that, because of the insular nature of Hegarty’s concerns, fails to communicate the breadth of his talent.

The Crying Light was inspired by the work of Kazuo Ohno, a Japanese Butoh dancer who still practices his art, despite his confinement to a wheelchair as well as his advanced age of 102. Over the course of the album’s 10 very challenging compositions, Hegarty uses Ohno’s work as a starting point for exploring the vagaries of pain, love, metaphysical disappointment, and awe. Hegarty — who also happens to be a visual artist, dance enthusiast, video collaborator, and fashion designer — obviously lives a very rarified and complex life where all of his experiences are filtered and made comprehensible through art. It is a compelling and admirable undertaking to surrender to one’s heart and be guided by aesthetics. For mere mortals, however, Hegarty’s approach can be very exhausting to hear because it is so far removed from any sort of recognizable existence.

At times during The Crying Light, it feels as if the listener has been dropped into the middle of a seminar, during which Hegarty is working through his emotions in an attempt to find the best way to convey them. There is a voyeuristic quality to the experience of hearing a person outline, explore, and address his pain. Despite its inherent delicacy, The Crying Light is a raw and visceral work that bears some resemblance to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. The language, metaphors, and images that Hegarty employs, however, are so deeply personal and affected that fans are made to witness his anguish without understanding its root causes. Consequently, it’s impossible to offer any sensible, cogent advice that could bring his suffering to an end.

From a musical perspective, The Crying Light contains a suite of compositions that are more intricate, complex, and satisfying than anything Hegarty previously has created. The arrangements often sound like the kind of modern classical music with which Laurie Anderson has been experimenting in her recent work. There is some interesting tension in The Crying Light’s instrumentation, and this adds a dynamic that had been missing from Antony and the Johnsons’ other endeavors. Listeners must strain to hear the delicate strings and subtle, wafting, percussive beats that drift through Hegarty’s songs, but fortunately, Greg Cohen — a longtime cohort of Tom Waits — supplies some much-needed sonic depth and muscle to his material. Of course, Hegarty’s voice is as heavenly and ethereal as ever. Yet, there is something slightly subtly askew in the way that The Crying Light ultimately comes together.

Regardless, it is important to stress how brave Hegarty is for pursuing such a strange and individual path for his art to follow. The first thing that anyone who has watched him perform will notice is how painful it is for him to sing. His voice does not flow as naturally as it does from a singer such as Aretha Franklin, whose body acts a conduit for channeling messages from the musical spheres. Rather, the act of vocalizing seems to be a torturous exercise for Hegarty, one in which his body becomes an obstacle that the spirit within him does its best to bypass.

The subject matter of The Crying Light reflects this difficulty, and it goes a long way toward explaining the world view that informs Hegarty’s songs. Like an etching by Aubrey Beardsley, his compositions express a gossamer-like delicacy that makes them almost too fragile to be heard. On track after track, the sound of disparate, hushed keyboards escorts Hegarty’s voice into the ether, and it often feels as if a gust of wind could blow through the window and dispel his dainty meanderings completely.

Spending an afternoon with Hegarty’s fluttering vocals and precious musical arrangements is like living in an Oscar Wilde play, where art exists for its own sake and the pursuit of beauty provides the only solace that is available to an otherwise painful existence. In this universe, the world is brutish and unfeeling, and all situations eventually devolve into tragedy. Whatever light there is to be found in Hegarty’s songs is present only to accentuate the darkness via counterpoint. As much as one can be drawn into the antique and filigreed loveliness of his material and its melodrama, one eventually is left craving fresh air and sunshine.

In the end, The Crying Light certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Even those who love and admire the album likely will listen to it sparingly. It is complex, brave, and challenging, though it also is overwrought and self-reflective to the point of inertia and despair. From whatever perspective one hears his songs, Hegarty is undeniably a gifted and important singer with an artistic vision that virtually assures his fans that his best work is yet to come. starstarstar ½

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Of Further Interest...

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Nina Simone - To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

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The Crying Light is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright © 2009 The Music Box