Beach grey wave shore roll over pebbles. It’s wet, it’s miserable: Antony and the Johnsons have recorded a third album, “The Crying Light.”
Almost as starkly monochromatic as its cover, a 1977 portrait of Japanese budoh artist Kazuo Ohno, the album does at times gesture toward brighter shades. But for the most part, it resurrects lead singer Antony Hegarty’s dripping monster of a worldview that surfaced in his second release “I am a Bird Now,” which slowly forced its audience into a posture of hopelessness. An aesthetically displeasing mess, “The Crying Light” picks up the baton, plunging audiences further into the dejection of modern life.
I can predict the Web responses now:
“What Niarchos doesn’t understand is that when Antony sings out of tune, it’s not ‘aesthetically displeasing,’ it’s art.”
Great, yes, Hegarty’s voice is certainly interesting, perhaps it is even “art,” but not all art is good; why is Hegarty’s sea of loneliness any more valid than our own?
While critics love the fact that Hegarty’s voice varies from heroin-warble to heroin-bluesy and often leaps about in strange and momentarily interesting ways, I still want to shoot myself when I hear Hegarty sing “kissed by kindness” over and over again on “One Dove.” Even more depressing is when Hegarty seems to will still more woe upon himself. “Cut me in quadrants/ Leave me in the corner,” he sings on “Epilepsy is Dancing,” a track whose title might betray some irony, or even honest examination of the epileptic condition (one need only think of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”), but ultimately shortchanges us.
In fact, this is perhaps the feeling that pervades after the depression and annoyance summoned by the album have faded, the feeling of having been shortchanged in two main ways:
First, Hegarty aspires to some sort of blind masking of “deep” emotions (depression and liberation) in quirky image and instance. Appealing as this might be to fans of post-confessionalism and the “let’s all sit and talk about how we feel” school of poetry, the lyrics have no poetic subtlety. This is probably because Hegarty is not a poet (even though it is often claimed he is), as his lyrics are too blundering. Hegarty is also not an intellectual, which brings me to my second point.
Hegarty is incredibly postmodern in his fusing of many different influences, kudos, but a failure to comment on anything beyond personal despair and vague liberation is his downfall. Bringing up transgender issues, the pain of life and the potential for love to set us free does not make you an intellectual. Hegarty is as much a fraud as Kazuo Ohno — budoh is a completely made-up dance form created in post-World War II Japan with strong roots in European culture. To trace the genealogy of budoh is to trace a genealogy of multiple personalities, but where budoh succeeds, Antony and the Johnsons fail. Budoh simply does not care about its cultural origins and seeks to be a perfect art form, transcendent and beautiful, which it certainly approaches. Hegarty, on the other hand, seeks to reaffirm his multiple sources of inspiration, but his portrayal of these is only skin-deep. “The Crying Light” smacks of inauthenticity, which would be all right if it did anything pleasing or innovative. But it doesn’t.
Hearing the Johnsons whisper out slow drum and guitar rhythms before being drowned out by Hegarty’s affected voice just doesn’t bring any of the artistic intensity of budoh; I can’t imagine why anyone can find sitting with Antony and hearing him whine for almost 40 minutes enjoyable. Besides, none of this is particularly original. Even the celebrated guitar riff on “Aeon” is straight out of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”