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Review: Antony And The Johnsons’ ‘Light’ Brightens His Melancholic Star

N.Y. Singer Releases Full-Length Followup To Breakthrough Disc

As the saying goes, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

Photo: Secretly Canadian

Photo: Secretly Canadian

Unfortunately for New York singer Antony Hegarty, his meteoric rise — launched by the melodramatic marvelous-ness of 2005’s “I Am A Bird Now” — made his highly emotive pipes a white-hot commodity for others rather than in service of his own career. While Hegarty has busied himself with high-profile guest appearances and assorted side projects, the musical fame game has essentially kept him brightening someone else’s star instead of his own and distracted him from pursing his primary creative outlet for nearly four years.

Last fall, Hegarty and his longtime backing band, the Johnsons, released an EP — his first new material since the much-acclaimed “Bird” — to reintroduce himself to his neglected audience. To seal the deal, he has just issued a full CD, “The Crying Light,” which reinforces the sonic glories of his languorous, cabaret style and underscores his position in the always-fickle music landscape

As was the case on “I Am A Bird Now,” the new record wallows in heart-in-your-throat, almost gothic splendor. Like a male Tori Amos, Hegarty’s tremble-y vocals are cast on a background of stark piano chords and mournful strings. He’s taken the role of a torch singer, dressed it in funeral black and used his vocal abilities to imbue each performance with such passion so that listeners largely miss the dressing.

The difficulty for Hegarty and his bandmates was easily pigeonholing them. His star-studded associations have kept his schedule busy with guest shots and yet kept him as solo artist from tapping into an existing following. His membership in acclaimed dance-pop side band, Hercules and Love Affair, offered Hegarty opportunities to be more than a balladeer. His collaboration with freak-folk kingpin Devendra Banhart gave him entre to that scene, but his music was too urban and theatrical for a reincarnated hippie movement. His friendship with singer Rufus Wainwright added to his cred as a vocal powerhouse and gay icon (Hegarty’s longstanding relationship with the gay and transgender community made this connection inevitable). He even impressed the always prickly Lou Reed, who thought so highly of Hegarty to have him appear on his Edgar Allen Poe theme record, “The Raven,” and invited him on tour and actually share the microphone on select songs.

When it came for Hegarty to return to his own solo pursuits, he chose to view his guest shots as merely that. For “The Crying Light,” he’s gone back to the chamber music vibe of “I Am A Bird Now” and sought to expand the musical scenarios he and his six bandmates have constructed while keeping the core foundations of the group’s sound firm. In the era of the iPod store, he might be the last artist striving to make complete LPs. These are compositions that live and die on Hegarty’s voice and the best the accompaniment can aspire to be is to set up or burnish his delivery at the mic stand. And the best way to achieve that in Hegarty’s mind is a slow tempo and bare-bones musical atmospherics.

Besides the sonic similarities between the group’s debut and latest disc, Hegarty again is preoccupied by thoughts of metamorphosis and transcendence. Song after song, the central conflict is escape and he narrates each track as someone born in the wrong place, time or body. “I need another world/This one’s nearly gone,” he cryptically pleads on “Another World.” This is soul tormented not only by insatiated desire, but whose vision of paradise is tantalizingly just out of reach.

The continuation of the same aesthetic scenery between the records doesn’t invalidate the group’s efforts. Instead, this is a natural sequel and one that doesn’t seem to retread familiar ground, but continue it. The album’s first track, “Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground,” is an elegant ballad that deftly brings the curious into the fold or transports fans back to the final notes of “Bird.” Piano and strings simper and yawn in the background, leaving Hegarty’s vocal crescendos to do the heavy lifting and he’s convincing. There’s pain in his heart, but his singing is a sad cry that draws ears in. Other birds of a feather like “One Dove” and the disc’s title track take the same idea: strip down a Frank Sinatra big-band production of a sensitive love song, maintain the emotionality and hints of jazz and replace a macho Italian-American crooner for a gentle, New Wave-loving British expatriate.

The album also allows Hegarty the chance to show he’s a performer whose range extends beyond being a convincing balladeer. On “Aeon,” Hegarty and the group transform an Otis Redding groveling love song into an epic paean that burns with the same mix of reverent and fervent passion. A mournful piano introduces a sentimental mood before receding for Steve Cropper-ish guitar tones that ring in ascending order like bells. Hegarty sings with unkempt bravado and barely restrained emotion that recalls Robert Plant at his most tender. His lyrics are obscure and yet suggest embracing everything from a partner, a parent, God, time and maybe even love itself. If Redding sought to reconcile with a love who just doesn’t understand on cuts like “These Arms Of Mine,” Hegarty wants to surrender to what he doesn’t understand to all his heart.

To the musicians’ credit, not every song on “The Crying Light” is a heart-wrenching journey. He takes a lighter attitude on “Kiss My Name,” which is a piano ditty that Fiona Apple would ease lay claim to. A smart drum pattern kicks up a rhythm that energizes the piano chords and accents of Robbie Robertson-like squeezed guitar flourishes.

Like his side gigs, however, these songs are just diversions for his overarching mission. Mostly, Hegarty wants to just enthrall people with the majesty of his voice. The six-minute opus, “Daylight And The Sun,” is as sweeping and openly over-the-top as he and the Johnsons allow themselves to be. Strings build and build as Hegarty’s voice strains to extract every drop of emotion from each note. Here again, lyrics like “Your fire becomes a kiss” make the words less important despite the glacier-paced tempo. His intentions are more opaque, which is to delve deep inside and expose all those feelings bottled up and shaded from view. The exposing quality of the music is the engine driving each performance.

Taken in as a whole, many might easily tire of the inherent melodrama in Antony’s songs. However, there’s a fine line between musical schlock and a transformative performance captured on tape. Hegarty and the group’s material might have more in common with the Brill Building and stars of the big-band era than the Pitchfork crowd, but no one can deny the uniqueness of their sound, the pristine arrangements or Hegarty’s singing talents. In the end, his vocal skills prove the deciding factor over and over again. He turns what the jaded might shrug off as “Dr. Zhivago”-like silliness and invests it with living, breathing energy. He can turn words and notes on a page into an emotional reality.

And this might account for why Hegarty has proven such a valuable pal to have in musical circles. Someone who knows their way around a mic might easily bring new attention to a project or reverse a trend for someone whose star is fading. Now, Hegarty’s performed the same Lazarus routine for himself.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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