Review: Antony and the Johnsons

The NYC singer unveils a stunning environmental manifesto, Swanlights.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Antony Hegarty, a singer-songwriter of angelic falsetto and soulful vigor, walks into the plush lobby of the Bowery Hotel a quarter hour late, armed with customary apologies. He is a large man comfortable in his size, a youthful 39. Antony, who performs without his surname, identifies himself as transgender, yet more than anything he seems a composite of several different people. He has the bearish hands of an old-time Hollywood mogul—minus the burly grip—and the long, dark hair of an Asian woman. A diva in pajamas, he wears a droopy shirt and the same type of running shoes that the President donned to throw out a first pitch.

Antony's speaking voice betrays hints of his British youth, but he is an unconditional New Yorker, currently parked in the East Village after years spent a few blocks west. He is courtly and gentle, yet if conversation veers anywhere near politics, be warned: A Ferrignovian ball of rage is at hand. "Why isn't race and gender on the table?" he demands at one point. "Why isn't male privilege on the table?!?"

"There's something like three energy lobbyists to every member of Congress!" he exclaims later.

"Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly—all of them Murdoch's puppets!" he fumes another time. "They wouldn't even exist without Fox News. And Fox News is paid for by profits from Avatar—all these people going to the movies, hoping to recover their connection with nature!"

The singer makes an environmental argument that's just as impassioned, if perhaps less didactic, on the new Antony and the Johnsons album, Swanlights (Secretly Canadian). Created in conjunction with a Swanlights book devoted to the musician's collage art, the project obliquely wrestles with what Antony calls his "obsession with the ecology of a planet that we're affecting detrimentally."

Swanlights is Antony's fourth album and, in many ways, his most immediately grabbing. It is a work of sweeping, histrionic emotion—few contemporary singers shed as much blood as Antony does clutching the word oh—as well as subtle balladry. At different points on the record, he is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, groovy horns seemingly beamed in from an Al Green production, string arrangements by the young composer Nico Muhly, and Bjrk. "Singing next to her is chasing after her," Antony says, "like a little dog chases a big horse."

Alongside Antony and the Johnsons' breakthrough, 2005's I Am a Bird Now, the new LP makes a case for Antony as one of our preeminent soul singers—the contemporary crooner who most closely approaches the celestial weirdness of Nina Simone. Fittingly, the musician's sole American performance of 2010 will occur this week during Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, a spiritual survey in which he is a rare emissary from the pop world.

In a postracial society, a transgender environmentalist and long-lapsed Catholic makes for an apt soul diva. Not only does his singing cry for the voiceless—whether sexually confused youth or a trod-upon landscape—but his identity casts him in a glow of otherness once afforded to singers like Simone. In Antony's singing, listeners find not just extreme beauty, but an exoticism that can seem to validate the hallowed aura of his songs.

The musician sees things differently. "My sense is that my music is enjoyed despite the fact that I'm transgender," he says. "The NPR kind of dialogue about me is still grappling with the most basic ideas of whether I should even be allowed to have a platform as a transgender person to express anything beyond the fact that I'm transgender. They're just fetishizing—and aren't even willing to address the content of the material."

Yet on Swanlights, it's Antony's material that claims victory. In the past, he sometimes has thrived less through his own songs than as an interpreter of material by other artists: notably Bob Dylan, Beyonc and his early, ardent champion, Lou Reed. On Swanlights, Antony finds grace in every syllable, while funneling through styles and sentiments with breathtaking confidence. "Everything is new," the singer repeats, at each end of his record, to considerable drama. "Oooooh, ahhhh, ooooooh."

Antony and the Johnsons play Alice Tully Hall (at Lincoln Center) Sat 30.

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Swanlights (Secretly Canadian)