Have you ever noticed how different sorts of popular music requires different listening arrangements. Personally I don't find I can get the full experience offered by punk bands like the Clash or The Sex Pistols while listening to them on my headphones. You need a lot of space around that music to really appreciate it. On the other hand there is some music that seems to cry out for the intimacy offered by headphones. It's not that they may or may not be able to fill a concert hall with their sound when performing live, rather you just don't want to miss a single moment of what is being performed and headphones seem the best recourse.
Such was the case with the new Antony And The Johnsons disc, The Crying Light, released by Secretly Canadian on January 20th/09. Prior to listening to their EP Another World, I had only previously seen Antony perform on DVDs in concert with other people, and so although I was aware of his voice, until then I hadn't known the nature of his own work. Any of you who have heard Antony's voice are aware that it can easily be misconstrued as delicate because of his tone and might think I'm talking about that when I refer to the need to use headphones to listen to his music.
What I discovered on Another World, and have now had borne out by The Crying Light, is that there is an intensity to the music of Antony And The Johnsons that I find requires headphones to capture when listening to their music on disc. I don't know if it actually makes the music sound any better (although considering the quality of some of my sound equipment it probably does) but it reassures me that I won't miss any of the moments in each song that go such a long way towards making them individual works of art. When I go to a museum or art gallery I like to be able to focus as closely as possible on the works that I'm looking at. As far as I'm concerned the music of Antony And The Johnsons demands that same respect and headphones are the best way that it can be given.
It all begins with the voice; Antony's voice is a pure tenor that rings like a bell, soars on the wings of his passion, and is powered by the depth of his soul. If that sounds like extravagant praise then you haven't heard him sing yet. Prior to Antony the only time you'd hear a man singing higher up the scale, with the singular exception of Roy Orbison, was either to squeak like Michael Jackson, shriek like Getty Lee, or sing pabulum like Frankie Vali And The Four Seasons. After years of aural assault from people like the Gibb brothers piercing my ear drums, it was something akin to a miracle to hear a real voice singing in the upper reaches of the scale. Even the so called female divas of pop music with pretences to having serious voices aren't able to put a fraction of the expression into their voices that Antony manages.
While Antony's voice is easily the most distinctive element of their sound, the Johnson's music is further distinguished from the majority of popular music by their willingness to take chances. The use of orchestral instruments like cellos and violins is nothing new of course, but what separates the music of The Crying Light from so many others is that it doesn't sound like pop music using violins and cellos. It's simply a matter of them having selected the instruments that will best convey the meaning of the song regardless of any associations it might have to a particular genre.
Whether it's the simple beauty of "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground" with its string and piano accompaniment, the perfect mix of strings and guitar on "Epilepsy Is Dancing", or the staccato snare drum countering sweet sounding strings and flute on "Kiss My Name", the arrangements on each sound like an organic progression that grew out of needs of the song, rather than the whims of a producer. For not only does the music sound good, it also works on an emotional level to help convey each song's meaning.
While that's obviously what the music that accompanies any song's lyrics is supposed to do, with this disc it plays an even more important role. For like abstract paintings or free verse poetry you can't always look for a literal meaning in the pieces on The Crying Light. Instead, allow the combination of the music, lyrics, and overall sound create an impression of the emotion or idea that the artist is trying to convey.
Certainly you can take Antony literally when he says he's looking for another world to live in on "Another World". Yet you can also look behind the lyrics and hear a plea for acceptance from someone who is different and desires a world where that doesn't matter. Or, on another level, it could also be a prayer on behalf of the world for us to wake up before we lose her.
The lyrics on this song, and others, may not spell out things out for you, but that doesn't prevent them from conveying ideas or emotions. Each of the songs on The Crying Lightare examples of how music can be greater than the sum of its parts as they each end up conveying something beyond the meaning of their lyrics. Much like orchestral music, Antony And The Johnsons utilize the various instruments at their disposal, including Antony's voice, to convey images and emotions through the imagery the sounds evoke.
With The Crying Light Antony And The Johnsons take pop music places that it hasn't gone before. However, that doesn't mean its inaccessible or difficult to listen to, for they have also created some of the most beautiful music that you'll have heard in a long time.
(Originally posted January 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.