ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: CUT THE WORLD (2012)
1) Cut The World; 2) Future Feminism; 3) Cripple And The Starfish; 4) You Are My Sister; 5) Swanlights; 6) Epilepsy Is Dancing; 7) Another World; 8) Kiss My Name; 9) I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy; 10) Rapture; 11) The Crying Light; 12) Twilight.
Poseur or not, Antony Hegarty is enough of a professional singer to merit hearing live; but even then, there must have been some extra measures taken to ensure that a live album from Antony & The Johnsons would make commercial and critical sense. The measure in question was to hook up with The Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and rearrange the setlist with the aid of a whole arsenal of classical tricks — in the grand old tradition of Procol Harum. The addition of an orchestra would hardly raise the bar on «pretentiousness» (this transcendental quality had already built its nest in Hegarty's mouth quite some time ago), but could allow to explore some additional opportunities. Besides, Antony and strings had been on friendly terms from the start.
The setlist opens with one new song (title track), a trademark Hegarty lament with relatively few lyrics and lots of swooping orchestral atmospherics; includes ʽI Fell In Love With A Dead Boyʼ from a rare EP (Alice Cooper would have definitely misinterpreted that title); and, for the rest, concentrates mainly on selections from the band's self-titled debut and The Crying Light — I Am A Bird Now and Swanlights, for some reason, are underrepresented, although the title track from Swanlights does get a major restructuring — the dark nightmare of the original is replaced by regular pianos and strings, as if acknowledging that the original went way too far in the «creepy» department, and that there's always another chance to cut back.
I cannot say that the rearrangements open up a new dimension in the music, or anything equally presumptuous. Like the absolute majority of classical reworkings of pop songs, they have a glossy, soundtrackish quality to them, and I believe that, in addition to all the strings, pianos, and woodwinds, they could have definitely used more brass (there is a small trombone blast at the beginning of ʽCripple And The Starfishʼ, and brass plays a big part in the crescendo at the end of ʽTwilightʼ, but otherwise it is mostly flutes and recorders), but, understandably, they did not want to cut down too much on the overall fragility and wimpiness of the proceedings — Antony has so consistently cultivated this image of a living being made entirely of pure glass, that a really strong brass blast could shatter him to pieces right there in the concert hall.
That said, the arrangements do fit the music and the voice — never detracting from the emotionality already present in the songs; the best news is basically that I do not mind their presence, and it makes for a good pretext to hear these songs once more, and since these are mostly good songs, then what's the problem? In a way, it is fun to discover that the effect that Antony Hegarty produces on your senses stays exactly the same regardless of whether he is being backed with forty academic musicians or just a lonesome string quartet (or trio, or duo) in the studio. Maybe that is because he is a like a small chamber orchestra in himself.
The very fact that this is a live album, though, is consciously downplayed: audience applause is only included in the mix at the very end of the record, as if the ten songs in question were just separate movements of one single suite (well, in a way you could say they are — in a way, Antony's entire career seems to be), and the only chunk of stage banter is a seven-minute speech that presages the suite and is included as a separate track, called ʽFuture Feminismʼ. Now, in a way, the speech is just a lot of post-New Age mystical bullshit, centered around Hegarty's trans-gender issues and his ideas on the femininity in human nature. But there is something about the way in which he delivers it that commands sympathy — a sort of lightweight, humorous teenage naiveté that makes you forget all the silliness because somehow it all feels normal: just a little fantasizing on issues of nature to help justify your perfectly normal inner queer. Presumably, not all the people with transgender mentality really seem like they feel at home with that mentality. Antony Hegarty, over these seven minutes, gives convincing proof that he does — and, as a bonus, throws in an intelligent crack at the Pope, which is not something that everyone in his profession does in an intelligent manner. Good speech.
Overall, this is certainly not an essential purchase, and even the hardcore fans should take note — many will find the orchestration excessive, if not generic or downright cheesy, compared to the sparse, elegiac arrangements on the studio records. But even then, it might be interesting to see how easily and comfortably Antony works in a live setting: his songs are so paranoid and claustrophobic, after all, that it is almost unimaginable to have him reproduce all that suffering and fear of the world before a big bunch of real people — you'd rather imagine him as this total recluse, recording in a self-made studio in some log cabin somewhere in Tibet. Well now, at least we know that much — that he does venture as far out as Copenhagen, and that he does not have an artist's block when working with a large ensemble of classical musicians. Should we feel disappointment over the lack of integrity, or relief over the physical and psychiatric sanity? Make your buying choice, depending on the answer.
Check "Cut The World" (MP3) on Amazon