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The Crying Game
Three years since his Mercury-winning second album swept the world, ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS’ Antony Hegarty is going back to nature. His new record is both a requiem for a dying planet and a statement of hope for the future – one that draws deeply on his Irish-Catholic upbringing. Prepare to have your spine tingled all over again.
Peter Murphy, 29 Jan 2009
Astral Weeks, Music From Big Pink, Funhouse, Exile On Main Street, Berlin, Deserter’s Songs, Funeral: the most enduring records seem rooted in a palpable sense of place, even if it’s an imagined one. The actual location evoked on Antony & the Johnsons’ third full length album The Crying Light might be unclear (and Antony Hegarty’s voice often evokes Van’s admission of feeling like “nothin’ but a stranger in this world”) but it’s no less powerful for all of that.
Born in the southern English town of Chichester, of English-Irish parentage, Hegarty spent most of his childhood moving around California, but found his voice through working late night drag and cabaret shows in downtown New York, recreating Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens character from Blue Velvet. The experience made him a formidable interpretive singer, capable of tackling Lynch/Badalamenti compositions like ‘Mysteries Of Love’, the Velvets’ ‘Candy Says’ or Leonard Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’, the showstopper in Lian Lunson’s I’m Your Man documentary.
Hegarty’s choirboy vocal style evokes Nina Simone and Little Jimmy Scott, Elvis at his eeriest, Tim and Jeff Buckley (he’s cited This Mortal Coil’s version of ‘Song To The Siren’ as his vocal holy grail), but mostly he sounds like an old black lady trapped in a white boy’s body. Many of us first heard first heard that voice on an austere, lunar version of ‘Perfect Day’ from Lou Reed’s double set The Raven, but further investigation of Antony and the Johnsons’ self-titled debut revealed a range that could include Roxy-like lounge lizardry, Berlin burlesque and after hours torch song trilogies.
The ensemble’s second full-length album, 2005’s I Am A Bird Now, contrasted tales of cross-gender longing (‘For Today I Am A Boy’) with slow-burning soul testimonials and abusive lover confessionals like ‘Fistful Of Love’. Perhaps Hegarty’s best known song, ‘Hope There’s Someone’, expressed the dread of expiring alone in some institutionalized rooming-house of the heart, but it also carried within its stillness the hope that even if such a fate befalls us, we might just summon the grace to bear it. I Am A Bird Now won the 2005 Mercury Prize and tied with Arcade Fire’s debut in most of the end of year polls; it also made Antony something of an unlikely star.