ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS (2000)
1) Twilight; 2) Cripple And The Starfish; 3) Hitler In My Heart; 4) Atrocities; 5) River Of Sorrow; 6) Rapture; 7) Deeper Than Love; 8) Divine; 9) Blue Angel.
Examine a non-provocative picture of Antony Hegarty (say, one on which he does not paint his eyes or face or construct a facial expression that presents him as Saint Anthony), and you will most likely think of the average school nerd, well stocked up on comic books and donut packs but severely suffering from lack of ladies' attention. But then it is exactly that kind of life that develops the perfect Goth sensibilities, doesn't it?
Listening to Antony And The Johnsons, an album first released in 1998 on the small label of David Tibet (Current '93) but prominently noticed only upon its more widespread release in 2000 on Secretly Canadian, people usually laugh or cry. Some are touched and shaken down to the very foundations of their soul. Others giggle, at best, or resort to words like «bollocks» (as in either, «this is total bollocks», or «where are this guy's bollocks?» — witness how the beauty of polysemy can result in the same word acquiring opposite meanings).
To be fairly honest, my gut intention would be to join the second camp. Hegarty's major asset is his voice — a high, fragile, tear-filled vibrato that sounds thoroughly unique, out-of-nowhere to his young generation fans, even though old-timers have already heard it all before on those classic Roxy Music albums; indeed, the similarity to Bryan Ferry is so transparent that one can't really help but wonder whether the old crooner had not been fathering illegal offspring in his young and reckless days. The similarity, and obvious debt to Roxy Music, already kills off part of the excitement for me; but there's worse.
All of the songs are, generally speaking, written in one key: somber, ominous piano-and-strings ballads whose only purpose is to extol the enticing delights of suffering. «Gothic» certainly comes to mind, but, to their credit, Antony and The Johnsons have never been dubbed Goths: there is nothing apocalyptic, or infernal, or zombie-like, or Edgar Allen Poe-ish, about this music, just pounds and pounds and pounds of broken heart for consumption. And Hegarty is not being too cryptic about it, either: "My heart is broken", he says (peace, brother), "here in the cup of my hands — from between cracked fingers old blood spills".
The whole thing, with dark, funebral piano chords, strings that tug at the soul as if urged on by a slavedriver's whip, and Antony's tremolo hovering over it all, is a kind of musical theater that aspires — not even to Classicism, but rather to Antiquity, with a bare hint at Far Eastern tradition as well. It is ridiculous and grotesque, and seriously off-putting, but I cannot even begin to imagine that a guy like Antony Hegarty professes a serious belief in this act; no man alive who does such things from the very bottom of his heart deserves a place in the art business.
But as an act, an artistic hyperbole in which reason disguises as feeling and calculation poses as emotion, I can dig this, and hold the opinion that it is the only way at all for the Johnsons to be dug without the digger growing a dunce hat. Because, as a manneristic show, the record is pretty much impeccable. The songs aren't particularly well written or memorable; instead, they unfurl like some sort of modern opera, with but one singer taking on all the parts, nine perfectly staged arias in a row. Their individual merits hardly exist, except each has an individually sick lyrical twist ('Cripple And The Starfish' is a chivalrous paean to masochism; 'Rapture' and 'Deeper Than Love' feature the word "falling", pronounced so many times that the mantra may eventually work, so be sure to have your feet firmly on the ground while listening; 'Hitler In My Heart' says it all with its title, really, etc.); but this cannot be held as an accusation, because it is not really a collection of pop tunes from a band — it's a mono-spectacle from an aspiring thespian.
It is thus that, out of deep, sincere respect for such elaborate staging, such lifelike decorations, such dazzling costumes, such a perfectly attuned lighting system, and such technical dedication on the part of the performer, I eagerly raise my thumbs up. But if you ever happen to meet someone who tells you that the debut album from Antony and the Johnsons made a new man / woman out of him / her, you'd better run like hell; like I said, Antony and the Johnsons do not make Gothic music, but there's a fair chance your rotting corpse will be fucked all the same.