There’s a fine line between sounding like a stroke victim with a speech impediment or a cherubim-like castrated choirboy. Sitting on the fence between these two is Antony Hegarty: a man who seemingly came out of nowhere with his celestial choral pop and depiction of (trans)gender issues to claim 2005’s Nationwide Mercury Prize thanks to a supposed ‘technicality’ allowing him into the competition in the first place.
Still, if residing in the US most of your life and being born in Chichester means you’re entitled to wipe the smirks off Kaiser Chiefs’ faces (the Leeds quintet had been one of the favourites for the accolade that year), then perhaps there is some justice in the world after all, eh? Further still, kudos to Hegarty for bringing his avant-classicist pop to the mainstream looking and sounding like he does.
Not since Ultrasound’s Andrew “Tiny” Wood has a pop star’s talent so decisively overridden the British public’s delight in body fascism. And now, following on from the victory of ‘I Am A Bird Now’ comes ‘The Crying Light’: a collection of songs dedicated to the walking corpse who adorns the record’s cover art – Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, who Hegarty fondly regards as his “art parent”. Pretentious? Absolument!
Given the issues covered on its predecessor you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some ode to the film The Crying Game. Alas, although Hegarty undoubtedly owes a debt to Boy George – the vocalist on the film’s soundtrack song and his sometime collaborator – he has created a record that ceases to alienate by harking on about gender and sexuality (well, for the most part). Gone are the semi-autobiographical songs found on ‘I Am A Bird Now’, where Hegarty crooned about growing up into “a beautiful woman”. This time around he’s focused his romanticism on the natural world; the dichotomy between light and dark, life and death.
And like Wordsworth and Coleridge before him, Hegarty strives for the intuitive rather than the rational; shrouding his songs with delicate verses that are at times cryptic (see the lyric “Cut me in quarters, leave me in the corner” from ‘Epilepsy Is Dancing’), but always engrossing and powerful, not least because of his quixotic vocal on the bombastic likes of ‘Daylight And The Sun’ and ‘The Crying Light’, or the way the ominous strings on ‘Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground’ motion you towards a woeful desolation that most artists are too fearful to confront.
The soulful, defiant tones of ‘Kiss My Name’ recall Nina Simone, while ‘Aeon’ – with its lyric “Oh Aeon, my baby boy/Aeon will take care of me” – proves Hegarty can’t quite keep one foot out of his androgynous issues. ‘Another World’, meanwhile, might sound cringeworthy on paper (as Hegarty explains how he’s “going to miss the animals” and asks “will there be peace?”), but the haunting, sparsely distorted strings and pounding keys make it one of the album’s most heartbreaking moments.
Those who’ve derided Hegarty as some warbling joke who’s spent too much time eating his feelings, take note: he’s no hapless dilettante. With ‘The Crying Light’ Antony And The Johnsons continue to explore the creative boundaries of pop while covering all emotional bases. For that, they should be celebrated.