Review of Cut The World Album by Antony and the Johnsons

If it sometimes feels that the more choice there is the more conservative our music tastes are becoming, one only need look at the on-going success of Antony Hegarty as proof that there is still room for a compelling, challenging and unique artist to broach mainstream success. Hegarty has long since justified the initial acclaim that greeted him upon winning the Mercury Music Prize back in 2005 with his second LP 'I Am A Bird Now'.

Antony and the Johnsons Cut The World Album

Whether he's been tantalising the dance floor alongside the soft-light disco of New York's Hercules And Love Affair, or scoring the music for the Willem Dafoe-starring stage production The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovich - last year's biopic-of-sorts on the performance artist - Hegarty has rarely finished a project without leaving an indelible mark on it. Interestingly both of these projects have shined because, whilst the 41 year-old has often attracted acclaim, he himself has never made himself the star attraction; a naturally shy performer he's often content to let those he's surrounded by take the limelight, merely content that his part of the creative jigsaw has fallen - often seamlessly- into place.

That provides a weird crux for the artist though, in that what he remains predominantly known for - his own work as Antony & The Johnsons - is perhaps still the aspect of his career that he approaches most awkwardly. Cut The World, this new live LP, is a perfect documentary of the almost unassuming talent that Hegarty has, juxtaposing the oceans of emotion to be found in that now familiar octave-wandering voice, and the humble awkwardness that lies within the person behind it. Recorded last year in Copenhagen with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, the onus is again shifted onto the orchestral arrangement, some of which are written by Nico Muhly, Rob Moose and Maxim Moston as well as Hegarty himself. Yet it's the main protagonist who comes to the fore, his voice unfailingly capturing the fulcrum of the listener's attention each and every time.

Bar the title track, the contents here are all live renditions and re-workings of cuts from previous albums; the joy of Hegarty's work with The Johnsons is the sense that his music works both as intimate confessional and something that is aching to reach out to the grander stage. That bombast is provided by the Danish orchestra and his voice rises gloriously to match them, so much steadier and stronger than it was earlier in his career when it seemed ready to dissolve at any given point. 'You Are My Sister' blossoms with a graceful elegance, whilst 'Swanlights' is a magisterial behemoth. Some tracks are re-worked more than others; 'Twilight' for instance turns into a slow, drawn out epilogue, 'Epilepsy Is Dancing' manages to keep much of its intimate charm.

For all the splendor of the re-works, it is the very first two numbers on the album that are perhaps the biggest curios. The title track is the sole new cut on offer, and sees brass and woodwind shimmer on the periphery of its orchestral arrangements; what's more poignant though is the title and the theme of the song, linked to the following number on the album which sees Hegarty speak to his audience for seven minutes on the impact of a 21st century society that has a virulent effect on the planet earth. Speaking as a transgender, he ruminates on how he is largely shunned by most major religions, and as such he invests himself in the current world far more than he might otherwise. Hegarty here explains his views on ecology and politics clearly and succinctly, speaking not hysterically nor with the stubbornness of someone whose mind on religion and spirituality is made up, but with the calmly questioning voice of a man who refuses to limit his boundaries in either music or beliefs. It's this continuing willingness to learn and explore, to question himself and the greater world around him that has so ensured that Antony remains constantly interesting, a chameleonic character who never leaves his core personality behind - something of a rarity in these increasingly shallow times.

Simon Catling

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