In 2005, Antony and the Johnsons released their second album, I Am A Bird Now, to widespread critical acclaim, winning the Mercury Music Prize and infiltrating the mainstream. The sound of Antony Hegarty’s third release, The Crying Light, will be familiar to those who heard the second, but this is no criticism; the album is a triumph.
In terms of progression, the quality of Hegarty’s songcraft is a notable improvement here. At times on I Am A Bird Now, there was a lack of subtlety in the melodrama of the songs, which could exhaust the listener with the sheer weight of their emotion. While this work is still one of high melodrama, the execution is more mature, and the songs are more balanced. Carefully arranged orchestration features throughout, and is generally deployed tastefully for accent and emphasis. There is a patience in tracks like ‘Kiss My Name’ that was sometimes lacking from the album’s predecessor. The result is that the overall emotional effect is ultimately more substantial.
Hegarty is clearly a special talent; the best songs on this album would surely stir emotion in even the most dispassionate of listeners. The ethereal quality of the last album’s most effective track returns, and is supported by improved instrumental backing. ‘Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground’ is full of beautiful, understated instrumental work, and the cello which closes the track is powerfully sombre.
Hegarty’s voice is familiar, but appears more well-rounded than before. ‘Aeon’ is a real departure from his melancholic style, seeing him in celebratory mode, at one point shouting, ‘Hold that man I love so much!’ in an unexpected highlight of the album.
The Crying Light is not a perfect album, there are times when the vocals and the music seems ill-balanced and the effect falls short of its intentions; where Hegarty aims to overwhelm he can sometimes alienate. I found myself irritated by the slurred vocals of ‘Dust and Water’; the intention there is a mystery, but the result is an unhappy confusion of sounds. Hegarty rarely misfires here, however, and ultimately the album has a great deal to recommend it.
The unexpected success of I Am A Bird Now was sure to bring with it a backlash to coincide with the release of Hegarty’s second album. For many, his acceptance as a mainstream artist was a difficult pill to swallow. From his affected vocal style to his unusual appearance, there was much to mock for the superficial observer. The album was, however, a stunning collection of powerful and distinctive works. This follow-up effort has been eagerly awaited by an enthusiastic fan-base. The success of the last album naturally meant that this one would likely be subjected to close scrutiny and unfair criticism.
Already reviews of the album appear to have taken a superficial attitude to The Crying Light, ignoring much of what is new to focus on the fact that much of what was strikingly novel last time remains a feature of the music now.
That the unusual nature of Hegarty’s sound is a familiar feature of his work by now should not in itself be the object of criticism. It is a lazy sort of journalism which fails to recognise that if Antony did not have such a distinctive style he would not be accused of sonic stagnancy. There is substance enough beyond Hegarty’s vocals to merit the more balanced criticism that will be afforded countless artists whose vocal styles vary little from record to record.
The unique sound Hegarty produces is a gift and its return is welcome. The power of the human emotion with which his voice drips is devastating when it combines most effectively with the music, and although at times it can simply be too much, the high-points of the album should justify suffering its excesses.