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Antony and the Johnsons' mysteries require few definite answers 

Wednesday, Feb 18 2009

No matter how much you've got it all figured out, your first encounter with the androgynous leader of the exquisitely sincere chamber-pop outfit Antony and the Johnsons could give serious pause. Even Lou Reed, upon first getting a load of quaver-voiced Antony Hegarty, is said to have asked, "Who is that?" And there is no way you're cooler than Lou Reed.

After that response to Antony's 2001 EP, "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy," Reed recruited him for, among other things, a live version of the Velvet Underground mainstay, "Candy Says," which promptly inspired Reed's same question about Antony from audiences. People haven't stopped asking after him since.

By the time Antony appeared in the 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, singing Cohen's rapturous "If It Be Your Will," the query had become a statement, albeit still dumbfounded: "Wow, whoever that twitching, delicately doughy, warble-voiced person is, she or he somehow is making this song even more humbly gorgeous."

Now, with the recent release of a third full-length, The Crying Light, and mainstream ubiquity rapidly approaching (promotion spots include The Late Show with David Letterman and Fresh Air), Antony and the Johnsons may turn enough heads to constitute a paradigm shift in pop-music appreciation — or, at the very least, a whole new generation of vibrato-empowered, precocious adolescent bathos.

Among the Johnsons, Antony is hard to miss. He's the large one, looking like some splendidly sad, lesser-known Lord of the Rings character. He sounds like a genetically engineered love child of Meat Loaf and Jeff Buckley, which improbability alone has earned him the kiss of God's approval. Aside from Reed and Cohen, Antony has also been musically intimate with Bob Dylan, Björk, Boy George, Devendra Banhart, Marc Almond, Hercules and Love Affair, and himself (his self-doubling harmonies are chillingly inspired). This gives him a mind-bending combination of legend cred, poet cred, sexy-weirdo cred, androgyne cred, freak-folk cred, torchy gay cred, disco-synth-pop-throwback cred, and DIY cred.

Antony gets all this attention not because he has inhabited and shed many layers of protective theatricality. He receives the accolades because the stripped-down vulnerability in his music has achieved a peculiar equilibrium of guileless yearning and world-weary knowing, of artless and arty.

Thus, The Crying Light's dusky melodies include not only notes, but also occasional whispered gasps — extra syllables added via catches in the throat — and its harmonic structures include smartly calculated ambivalence. Take "Daylight and the Sun," whose closing chords reach for major uplift before swerving into minor agitation, as if too bashful to grasp their own harmonic resolution.

Antony is all about ambiguity. Or maybe he's partially about it. Or maybe not at all. What we know for sure is that before the Johnsons was Blacklips, a shabby-chic East Village performance troupe from whose cabaret variety show the ore of Antony's music was mined. Before that, the tutelage of former Cockette Martin Worman, preceded by college at UC Santa Cruz and Catholic school in San Jose, important early exposure to Culture Club, and very early years in Amsterdam. We also know Antony was born in Sussex, England — Chichester, to be exact, which matters inasmuch as he arrived just six years after the cathedral there commissioned Leonard Bernstein's 1965 Chichester Psalms. The lasting essence of that music — wistful piety by way of bluesy Broadway showstopper — famously requires a heart-rending solo boy soprano. So maybe a sense of what was possible, both unknowable and obvious, had been in the air surrounding Antony from the beginning.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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