Review Summary: This time around, he deserves to be winning awards.
To begin with, I refer you to This is Your Brain on Music
, the excellent book by Daniel J. Levitin. In the introduction of this book, Levitin briefly considers the nature of memorable music, and why certain music is remembered years after the fact, how music can become more famous with time, and how some musicians who were originally considered important artists can either be forgotten or relegated to secondary importance. His given examples of the latter point included Cheap Trick, Adam & The Ants, Paul Stookey, and Mary Ford; and in 2008, it might have been tempting to add the name of Antony Hegarty to that list. In 2005, he was seemingly everywhere, being hyped by everyone, appearing in every year-end list - and then nothing. Compared to the Mercury Prize winners either side of him (Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, and Dizzee Rascal), his music hasn't remained in the public eye in anywhere near the same way, nor has it competed with any of the other acclaimed albums from the same year (Silent Alarm
, LCD Soundsystem
, even Illinois
) in that regard.
A lot of that can be attributed to his insular, arty songwriting and his love-it-or-hate-it voice, but it can't be ignored that the drop-off in his active fanbase compared to the acts named above is largely because, in retrospect, I Am A Bird Now
just isn't that good an album. Repeated listens revealed it to be patchy, with its subject matter too repetitive and its guest performances feeling like token gestures. Perhaps, then, the reason Antony's taken four years to make a follow-up is that he knew it had to be a serious improvement, lest his award-winning second album become the next Christopher Cross
And an improvement it is. The Crying Light
may take a while to sink in with most listeners (it certainly took at least three for me to realize its quality), but it's a confident step forward and outwards from his first two albums, in a good old-fashioned 'difficult third album' kind of way. The changes are at once both obvious and subtle, leaping from the page at first but taking their time to have their full effect. His songcraft, for one, has improved exponentially - where I Am A Bird Now
too often buried itself into an auto-piloted niche, Antony has worked hard here to bring in different sounds and textures without degrading the appeal he always had. The arrangement of "Aeon" seems simple at first, based around an arpeggiated guitar figure as basic as they come, but repeated listens reveal the subtly increasing distortion, the strings swirling around it, and the way Antony's voice sounds barely restrained at some points and almost Presley-esque at others. Even the song's pay-off lyric - 'take the power back' - works on the same principle, by first reminding the listener of Rage Against The Machine and then revealing itself to be tied in to an ambiguous lyric that is possibly about an abusive relationship, and that hints at birth trauma. Then there's the delicate, antiquated "Kiss My Name", the sprightly rhythms of which displays Rufus Wainwright's influence without actually sounding much like him, and the sweeping movie score strings found on "Everglade". Even the album's most immediate song, and the one that harks back to his previous albums the most, shows off this new focus - "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground", an opener every bit as bewitching as "Hope There's Someone", its flute arrangement moving it softly into oddly comforting territory before a heavy, bassy string finale closes it out.
If you were one of the many that loved I Am A Bird Now
when it was released, then you'll undoubtedly enjoy this just as much. All the basics of the Antony and the Johnsons sound - the soulful voice, the producer's habit of multi-tracking that voice more often than not, the slightly naive piano playing, the homely intimacy - remain, yet this time they've been reworked into something more built to last. With this lush, almost Mark Hollis-esque album, Antony is finally worthy of every platitude that's been thrown in his direction.