Once in a while a performer comes along who is so riveting, and the impression they make on you so indelible, that you seriously doubt your own senses. Nobody can be so gifted that they take your breath away from the moment they open their mouth and begin to sing. So the next time you see them you go in armed with skepticism, prepared to withstand whatever trickery they used to get past your critical detachment the first time, only to discover the amour hasn't been invented that can defend against so pure an assault upon your heart and soul.
The first time I saw Antony of Antony And The Johnsons perform he was participating in a tribute concert to Leonard Cohen that had been staged at the Sydney Opera House in Australia that was included in the documentary I'm Your Man. In a production crowded with star power like U2, Nick Cave, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony's performance was so transcendent that it left the rest in its shade. Ask me if I can remember which song he sang, and I couldn't tell you, but I can remember every note he sang and being amazed that anybody in popular music had the courage to stand on stage with so much of their heart and soul on display.
Although I was pretty much convinced by that performance that this might actually be a performer who deserved to be called an artist, watching him as part of the ensemble of musicians who participated in the concert version of Lou Reed's Berlin on the recently released DVD, cemented that feeling. Here was the second time he had sung material with an incredible potential for melodrama, and he had not only been able to resist that temptation, but had delivered on the promise he had shown in I'm Your Man of being able to pierce your heart with a single note.
Still, there have been too many times in the past where I've seen performers sound wonderful as backup singers, or doing a guest spot in someone else's show, only to listen to them perform their own material and be sorely disappointed. So when the opportunity to review the five song Another World EP, on the Secretly Canadian label, that the band has released in advance of their forthcoming full length CD, The Crying Light expected in January, I took it. Not only didn't Antony disappoint when performing his own material, he ended up impressing me more than ever.
For those of you not familiar with Antony, the first thing you need to know about is his voice. He's probably the only popular singer around right now who sings in a pure tenor, meaning he's in the high end of the scale. However, unlike other male singers who sing high, he doesn't sound like he's been cross bred with one of Disney's more annoying characters so he's neither shrill nor squeaky. Instead he has a purity of tone that you'd normally only associate with opera or traditional Irish music. Thankfully, although he leans more towards the latter, he's developed his own unique style that allows him to have more expression and a wider range of emotion than I've heard from singers in either of those genres, so he's never monotonous.
Normally power is not a word you'd associate with a man's voice in the upper registers, but Antony is not only able to display delicate nuances of emotion, he can belt out the blues. The third track of Another World, "Shake The Devil", starts off with Antony sing/chanting lyrics over a sustained note gradually building in volume until into breaks down into fuzz and a moment of quiet. This is quickly broken by a sharp, almost staccato, beat snapped out on the snare over which Antony begins to sing out a gospel tinged, blues number. With a saxophone blurting out counterpoint to the lyrics and the drum, the song takes on a strange hypnotic quality that gives one the impression of a ritual in action.
Still, that's not what distinguishes Antony from so many other singers. No, what elevates him a notch above anyone else is his ability to imbue what he sings with emotion that feels like its being drawn directly from his heart. I know there are plenty of singers out there that can be described as singing their hearts out or who even sing from their hearts, but there are few who you can honestly say surrender themselves completely to the song. When you listen to Antony sing you are drawn out of yourself into the world of the song. You don't so much listen to him perform as become absorbed by it to the point that its more like a piece of theatre than music.
Take the title track "Another World" where Antony sings about wanting another world, but lists all the things about this one he's going to miss. Not only does the song remind us of how much we stand to lose if we allow the planet to be destroyed, we experience the sense of lose and longing generated by those circumstances. Yet, underneath, there's another level of meaning that runs through the song as well, a plea for a world where there is room for all of us no matter who we are. Sure there is great beauty in this world of ours, but there is also plenty of ugliness in the form of hatred and bigotry that we could certainly do without.
Musically the songs on Another World obtain a level of sophistication that are far beyond what one would expect from pop music. Normally I consider strings to be the kiss of death in a pop song, as they usually only serve to manipulate the listener's emotions and add a layer of melodrama to the proceedings. In this case though, they are incorporated into the overall composition instead of being used to merely point out obvious increases in emotional intensity. Like the rest of the instruments being played by the "Jonhsons" they work together with Antony's voice to create an atmosphere appropriate to each song's lyrical content.
It came as no surprise to me that while searching for information on Antony And The Johnsons on the Internet to discover that they had been involved in the production of performance art pieces that have been presented at some of the most respected galleries in North America (The Whitney Museum of American Art) and concert halls across Europe. There is a theatricality about their music that brings it alive for the listener in ways that I've never experienced in popular music before. Yet in spite of that they maintain the type of intimacy that one would expect from a folk musician so one never feels distanced from their performance.
Another World by Antony And The Johnsons is a truly unique recording from a very singular talent. If you've never heard them before, than this represents the perfect opportunity to sample what they have to offer. The one drawback is that its only an EP so there are only five songs on the CD. Of course, you could always pick up their previous release, I'm A Bird Now, to help tide you over until January when they will be releasing their next full length CD, The Crying Light. However, the five songs on this EP are far more substantial than most other band's complete catalogues, so even if you only buy this disc there's no way you'll feel short-changed.