Antony and the Johnsons Step Toward the Light

The notoriously shy Antony Hegarty is coming into focus.

It's the opening night of Antony and the Johnsons' U.S. tour, and the inside of the Keswick Theatre in suburban Philadelphia is as dark as a meadow on a cloudy, moonless evening. Barely visible onstage is the shape of a grand piano, a clutter of music stands and instruments—cello, guitars, horns, drums, a clarinet, violins—and the surge of eight bodies moving toward them in unison.Leader Antony Hegarty, 37, sits at the piano, the Johnsons assemble far to the right of him, and the delicate opening strains of "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground"—the first track from the group's new The Crying Light—pour forward.Immediately that voice hits you. Routinely described as "otherworldly" and "ethereal," Hegarty's exceptionally dramatic and emotional multi-octave delivery is almost impossible to characterize if you haven't heard it, and as polarizing as Morrissey's, Dylan's, or Björk's. Maybe the shivering quality of Jeff Buckley's vocals in his more pensive moments is a good starting point of comparison, but there's such a singular, magnetic swirl of anguish, wonder, regret, and loneliness within Hegarty's trembling tone that his voice is ineffable.As the song progresses, there's still no light onstage; finally, one meager shaft materializes behind the ensemble, barely outlining Hegarty's broad frame and long, dark hair. The somber strings and Steinway that close "Her Eyes" give way to the pastoral sway of "Epilepsy Is Dancing" and another new song, the haunting "One Dove." With each tune the backlighting grows, but so slowly that even if they played for hours you'd still have trouble seeing their faces.Is this a tech's idea of mood lighting taken to the extreme? Perhaps Hegarty, famously soft-spoken and shy, is more comfortable living in the shadows? A transgendered artist—androgynous in appearance and openly gay—Hegarty's consumed by matters of identity: "One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful girl/But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy," he sang on the group's breakthrough 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now. His environment and the way he fits into his surroundings, or doesn't, is also a dominant theme in the band's music, while nature's deterioration is a chief concern on The Crying Light (it's perhaps the greenest album you'll encounter all year). Hegarty seems all things at once—man, woman, young, old, optimist, cynic—and at the same time nothing at all, at least nothing easily definable. Even the group's exquisite chamber pop belongs to no distinct era or scene.And yet for all the melancholy and angst emanating from the stage, it all feels so life-affirming too. Perhaps the steadily rising light is like birth: Hegarty's creative vision slowly traveling away from the dark womb of his psyche, emerging into this theater full of spellbound fans."The coffins are just beginning to creak open and new things are coming out of them," Hegarty says two weeks later via phone from a tour stop in Chicago, putting a decidedly Gothic spin on the experience. It's his way of explaining that some of the songs he put to rest months ago upon completion of The Crying Light are now revealing themselves in different ways on this tour—the band's first in more than two years—which concludes Feb. 28 at the Moore Theatre."Sometimes you're very clear about what your original, initial intention was, and sometimes it's more intuitive," he continues. "Some of the songs have taken flight more than others. You write a song at a point in your life, and if it's any good it hopefully takes on a life of its own. And then every day you just take a creative stroll with it and see what comes out."There's a noticeable directness to The Crying Light—whether in its more restrained arrangements or its more straightforward lyrical sentiments—at least as compared to I Am a Bird Now. There is also less introspection. It's not that Hegarty has stopped excavating his deepest agonies and desires, but here he's more committed to exploring his fears of environmental calamity. Even when his words lean toward the prosaic—in "Another World," he sings "I'm gonna miss the sea/I'm gonna miss the snow/I'm gonna miss the bees/I'll miss the things that grow/I'm gonna miss the trees/I'm gonna miss the sound/I'll miss the animals/I'm gonna miss you all"—that devastating voice transforms them into heartbreaking, profound statements."I never really thought about 'audience' when I wrote before, but 'Another World' is a song I wrote with audience in mind," says Hegarty. "It was probably the most consciously written song I've ever done. I was very clear with what I wanted to do—I wanted to write a song that reflected exactly what I felt when I sat with this notion of changing, vanishing ecology. And I wanted to do it in very simple language, not super-metaphorical or veiled. I just wanted to be really clear, to just mark the moment and consider what the future holds."Regardless of the approach or subject matter, his ability to connect with and touch a crowd certainly hasn't diminished in the slightest. By the end of Antony and the Johnsons' performance in Philadelphia, there was enough light to see the blissful expressions in the crowd. And the smile on Hegarty's face was the brightest of all.feedback@seattleweekly.com

 
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