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Dark was the Night, Tender is the Sound: A Review of Antony and the Johnsons’ Cut the World

It’s 12:18 on a Wednesday night, and Antony and the Johnson’s Cut the World is streaming softly from my speakers. My roommate is reading on the couch, but stops and asks, simply, what is this? I say, it’s beautiful, isn’t it, and he agrees, though a second later he reiterates, what kind of music is this? We listen to the soft crescendo of the song playing, and I think, for once, that I’m not sure what to say. I’ve listened to this music for seven years now, and I still don’t have a proper answer, for that simplest of questions.

Antony Hegarty seems to exist beyond realms of simple description, to say nothing of pop categorization. The England by way of San Francisco singer moved to New York, came out as transgender, and immediately began running with the queer underground cabaret and performance art crowd.  That’s one thing readily on his surface, an at once defiant and subtle refusal to be labeled as a man, a pop musician, a citizen of this society. Antony makes the work of establishing identity, especially in a world only now catching up to what identity is and how it works, he makes the work of becoming not only radical, but noble as well.

And then there’s the voice of Antony. It can make you swoon if it catches you off guard. A soft, supple tenor, equally at home in classically inspired cabaret songs and four on the floor disco tracks, it bespeaks an honesty and fleeting beauty in its richness and clarity, grasping notes firmly yet sweetly, and when it rises to meet a musical flourish, a leap of the heart as well. His song Hope There’s Someone, from his first album, still stands as the perfect example of this, determined piano lines surrounding his emphatic plea with the cosmos that he not live alone, die alone, his voice reaching heights commensurate with intensity of this desire. When Antony reaches low to evince heartbreak, like in his stark version of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, off the Dark was the Night compilation,  there are tremors on the floor. He does nothing if not establish the sanctity of musical gifts.

Surrounded by the Johnsons, who like the Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds are a band who don’t aim to outshine or even keep pace with their singer, but in whose humble ethos a quiet genius could be found. Piano lines encircle Antony like the center of a spiral staircase, guiding him upward or down in relaxed, steady steps. Violins echo his themes with quiet flourishes, preferring to fill in songs rather than elevate them on their own. We thus hear a band suffused with a sense of purpose, locked in with their singer, allowing the music and the songs to rise by themselves.

Cut the World is Antony and the Johnsons’ first live record, recorded in Copenhagen with the Danish National Orchestra, and one that collects songs from their four full length albums. The orchestra adds yet a further quiet yet meaningful touch, the strings and brass supplementing, rather than overriding, the Johnsons’ parts, thus allowing Antony’s voice to shine in the center the way it should. Songs like Another World, with its mournful look at where we and the environment are going, are thus given much more depth, yet still rooted in the modest beauty of the original recording. You Are My Sister, Antony’s touching ode to friendship keeps its determined march, while Antony’s lyrics about being “protected only by the kindness of your nature” settle in ever stronger, his delivery tender, his evincing of love true.

On a track entitled Future Feminism, Antony muses on his place in a world still locked in old ideas, old systems of being, and one at odds with the natural world around it. He cuts through his thoughts on feminism and ecology by stating simply, that he is a witch, that he de-baptized himself, actually. Rather than coming across as a totally kooky statement by someone too enthralled with his artistry to actually hear himself, taken as a whole with his music, we hear Antony, and we know that he is only trying to plainly state what to him feels obvious: The world can be cold, and we can be harmful to it and each other, but with an honest, measured attempt at creating and naming both ourselves and our means of coping with it, we can come to a place of real honesty, and great beauty.