Using Peter Hujar’s photograph from 1974 of a dying Candy Darling for the cover of Antony and the Johnsons’ second album, I Am A Bird Now (2005), was a shrewd decision. The portrait tied the melancholic collection of piano-and-voice cabaret songs to a mid-1970s’ moment in which the British-born Antony Hegarty’s adopted city of New York was decaying and Andy Warhol’s beauties were disappearing. Lyrically, the album’s preoccupations with gender and transformation (‘One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl’) were exceptional in a mainstream release – and, after it won the 2006 Mercury Music Award, mainstream is surely what it was. Hegarty’s means are familiar, however; listening to I Am A Bird Now four years after its release, the straightforwardness of those ten songs is surprising in a band whose weirdness has been the focus of much critical attention.
The Crying Light severs downtown affiliations (gone are the guest spots from Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart) in favour of a newfound closeness to the natural world, human forms melting into sunlight and running water. The cover features an extraordinary portrait of Kazuo Ohno, the 102-year-old founder of butoh – a Japanese dance form concerned with surreal metamorphoses – whom Hegarty refers to as ‘kind of like my art parent’. Rather than mourning deterioration, The Crying Light sees uncomfortable longing transfigured into absolute acceptance; death is now stoically recognized as belonging to a larger cycle of parentage and ageing, although, as with the song ‘Another World’, there is a new awareness of the planet under threat.
Hegarty’s singular voice, at once brave and quavering, remains central, although it recedes a little, while the heft of his solo piano is largely replaced with arrangements by young New York composer Nico Muhly, whose delicate approach cloaks and echoes the songs rather than leading them. Harmonics, distant chimes and barely-there finger-snaps pull out ghostliness in a way that recalls Max Richter’s subtle work on Vashti Bunyan’s Lookaftering (2005). The album’s central trio of songs (the title track, recent single ‘Another World’ and ‘Daylight in the Sun’) is its unmatched highlight. And while Hegarty often hits tremulous melodrama rather than grandiosity, it is to Muhly’s credit that some of the poorer lyrics – ‘Epilepsy is dancing / She’s a Christ now departing’ – draw less attention than they might otherwise.
In recent years Hegarty has been busy working on the performance Turning (2006) with the artist Charles Atlas, singing with Björk on a track from her album Volta (2007) and contributing to Lou Reed’s The Raven (2003). It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was the British underground stalwart David Tibet, of Current 93, who released Antony and the Johnsons’ début in 2000 on his own record label, Durtro. None of these relationships should be considered a cynical alignment, although it is enough to say that, as a collaborator, Hegarty is not only prolific but also canny. Smart design decisions and boho friends in high places shouldn’t confuse anyone into seeing either I Am A Bird Now or The Crying Light as anything odder than beguiling collections of torch songs. Which, perhaps more often than not, is good enough.