Antony and the Johnsons

The Crying Light

(Secretly Canadian; 2009)

By Joel Elliott | 21 January 2009

Is there a more harrowing art form than Butoh, the radical Japanese dance movement whose co-founder, Kazuo Ohno, graces the cover of Antony & the Johnson’s third record? Perverse, elemental, numbingly tragic, and yet Ohno, as its apotheosis, conducted his graceful solo performances like one-sided conversations. The point where representation dissolves into pure gesture. This is why Butoh could be so rooted in ancient Japanese mythology and at the same time informed by the intuitive logic of the body. Like the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (which incidentally features a pivotal scene involving a dance sequence so vivid in its illustration of human oppression that the main character has to run up to the stage and restrain the anguished fists of the silent actress), the practitioners inhabit the skin of those who have struggled in the past and present.

In short, it’s the kind of tribute only as devout a Scott Walker disciple as Antony Hegarty could convincingly realize. Fitting too, having already established himself as purveyor of both constructed identity and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. The Crying Light reaches for something simultaneously more personal and universal than I Am a Bird Now (2005) with its wrist cutter intensity and prominent vocal guest spots—two factors which made that album almost entirely the sum total of its voices and songwriting. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, and one could just as easily imagine a version of the album where Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, and Devendra Banhart didn’t get relegated to the three weakest tracks, but it’s harder to imagine a song like “Hope There’s Someone” being on an album that actually lives up to its enormous promise.

Also, in hindsight, I Am a Bird Now seemed almost entirely thematically involved with the concept of a man changing into a woman. A concept album about one’s own progression through genders is fascinating—especially as beautifully and sensitively as he managed to make it—but a stirring meditation on death that happens to be made by an androgynous musician crosses the line into a more complete form of artistic self-actualization.

And no, there’s no “Hope There’s Someone,” but the haunting bridge that carried that song seems to inform all the musical choices here. Every note seems to rise and fade before the next one takes over, sprouting up in slightly different directions each time; as a result The Crying Light carries a far more classical/baroque sense of never moving at an even pace. The sparseness is surprising, given Antony’s recent touring with huge orchestras and the number of instruments featured here—but all of those instruments seem to have been carefully pared back so as not to overwhelm the music. Even when there is a stable pace, it’s a far less contemporary rhythm, like the waltzes of “Epilepsy is Dancing” and “Kiss My Name.” The former is exactly what it sounds like, a ballad that re-imagines the frantic, uncontrollable movements of a seizure into something graceful, even transforming the unseen, internal chaos into a purpose-driven mission: “All the metal burned in me / Down the brain of my river / That fire was searching / For a waterway home.”

Beneath its tired vaguely environmental theme, “Another World” also hints at a darkness that even Hegarty himself doesn’t fully grasp: each line is left hanging to an unsafe degree, as if the next one might not even come out. The screeching wind of the Japanese flutes (a gesture that suggests Antony also understands that other side of Lou Reed) which round it out provide a perfect transition into “Daylight and the Sun,” a song whose likewise overly precious lyrics can’t hide the uncertainty and foreboding behind it.

And most of the lyrics aren’t as obvious or cloying as these: many of the songs open tiny but devastating holes in his steady wall of hope and optimism. “Aeon,” superficially the brightest song here—with sparkly clean electric guitar-picking replacing the usual weight of his piano—takes as its narrative that of a baby boy born to take care of his father in an eloquent reversal of roles. But then a line stuck somewhere in the middle of the song, bound to be missed by most casual listeners, suggests that Aeon was stillborn and that the father has been left alone to deterioration. Songs like “Aeon” and “Epilepsy is Dancing” are the stuff of Lars Von Trier movies, of both hope and crushing despair.

The past week at CMG headquarters has found a lot of staff with underwhelmed reactions to The Crying Light, and the most common complaint seems to be that Antony requires the listener to be in such a state of emotional reception and vulnerability. David Abravanel made a rather astute observation that “it’s hard to get to that place, and it’s often not a desirable place to be.” I tend to agree with him, and while it’s hard to get as close to Hegarty’s music as he may want us to, I think that the sheer fact that he creates such a challenge is evidence of his credibility.

It helps in my case that I’ve found a way to access his music, and I can’t stress enough how fitting Antony’s dedication of The Crying Light to Ohno really is. The artist, now over a hundred years old and only recently rendered unable to dance, has reached for youth and grace even as the inevitability of death has gotten closer and closer. In fact, judge for yourself: I urge you to watch this clip of Ohno performing “The Dead Sea” while listening to any portion of this album. The Crying Light may prove to be too precarious to hold up on its own in the future, but for now Antony & the Johnsons have provided a perfect gateway to their music.