antonyA big box discount retailer is the last place I might have gone looking for the latest album by Antony and the Johnsons. But sure enough, on a recent trip to Target for a new pair of shoes, I stopped by the music section to make sure I wasn’t missing out on any “Target exclusives”, expecting to be completely disappointed in their selection, and had to do a double take.  It turns out that Target has been featuring Antony’s third album The Crying Light, in its new music displays.  Now, granted, the superstar of Bloomington, Indiana’s beloved indie Secretly Canadian label was sharing the racks with other up-and-coming indie critics’ darlings like MGMT and Missy Higgins…

…but both those acts seem to come with the promise of future commercial success (our local Clear Channel affiliate is currently featuring a 2-year-old Higgins single as “new music”), where Antony’s sepulchral chamber pop ballads and his virtually genderless singing, all curdled cream and vibrato – an extraterrestrial amalgam of Sylvester, Maria Callas, on-her-death-bed Judy Garland and David Sedaris’s Billie Holiday impression – almost certainly inhibit any kind of mainstream, suburban embrace of The Crying Light or any future Antony and the Johnsons record.  To see it featured on a Target display – even among the moment’s “edgy” music – was a little like entering an alternate universe where American Idol is judged by a rotating cast of Pitchfork writers.

Then again, the appearance of The Crying Light in such quaint, suburban, quintessentially Midwestern environs just as Fox is harvesting this year’s crop of hopeless Idol hopefuls works as a useful reminder that there’s a place in pop music for all comers – even the heavily bearded 18-year-old physics student who can manage to convey a sense of existential despair with his a capella rendition of “Walking on Sunshine”.  Yes, Bearded Physics Student, in this alternate universe, you too can be an American Idol.

But I was careful not to fool myself.   I remember being astounded and moved by Antony (surname: Hegarty)’s previous record I Am a Bird Now, only to find it such a difficult listen that it has mostly sat on its shelf unplayed for the last four years.  Though, nevertheless, The Crying Light was a no-brainer must-purchase for me - it also took some girding of the loins before I could give it a listen.  The surprising thing is that, far more than I ever did for its predecessor, I find myself craving the songs of The Crying Light, and actually wanting to hear the record – so much so, that it hasn’t left my car stereo since I bought it.

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The first thing that you notice about this new record – the first thing, that is, beside Antony’s quivering, otherwordly voice, which, for many (most?) will be an immediate dealbreaker – is just how sad it all sounds.  Though he recently unveiled his own Inner Latent Disco Diva via multiple guest spots on an album by Hercules & Love Affair, Antony’s own songs have a dark, hymnal quality to them, which, coupled with spare, simple lines and hints at Medieval song structures and chord changes make songs like “The Crying Light” and the monumental “Daylight and the Sun” feel almost like religious incantations.  Lead single “Another World” is a series of simple call and response verses – the melody is simple and unchanging like a steady prayer.  I need another world.  This one’s nearly gone.

But on repeated listens, there’s also something beautiful and uplifting about the whole record, and it proves to be a far more diverse, far more self-contained, far more surprising, but also far more listenable piece of work than I Am a Bird Now.   The opening track “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground” opens with that immediate declaration of death.  But just a few lines in, there’s a note of hope:  No one can stop you now.

It’s a fitting compliment to the portrait of Japanese Butoh performer Kazuo Ohno (to whom the record is dedicated – Antony has referred to Ohno as his “art father”) that graces the record cover.   Butoh is a form of conceptual and imagistic, theatrical dance performance which generally explores grotesqueries and taboo.  And you could pretty much use the same words to describe what Antony does here.  “Epilepsy is Dancing” sounds almost festive – with different words, it might have been a Christmas carol – but it’s imagery is positively hallucinogenic, and not necessarily in a “good trip” sort of way, a kaleidoscope of glammy drag (“Glitter is Love!”) and religious ecstacy, culminating in a cry for destruction:  “Cut me in quadrants!  Leave me in the corner.”  Likewise, the jubilant, lightly Celtic lilt of “Kiss My Name”, with its wooshing, rollercoaster violin scales which, to my mind, evoke the endless, careless spinning of a little girl dancing, effectively obscures a tale of murder and grieving.

All of these songs seem to have secrets in them, but the record climaxes with a song called “Aeon”, a soulfully straightforward, full-throated declaration of love set to 70s-style hard rock guitar arpeggios (think Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”).   It’s a stark contrast to the delicacy of the rest of the record, and Antony’s usually carefully mannered singing is jettisoned in favor of something more raw (still otherworldy!), to the point where he’s literally shouting out the line “Hold that man I love so much!“  You get the feeling that everything about the record has led to the pure, emotional deluge of those two words, and everything that follows is a reflection of them.  “Aeon” sounds, simultaneously, like a song not of this album, but also the song that crystallizes the rest of this amazing record into a cohesive whole – the song around which the rest of the album revolves.  It’s Antony’s best song yet.  It’s Antony’s best album yet.  Still, no one’s likely to believe that you got it at Target.

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NOTE:  This album is also available as a vinyl LP.  The LP also comes with a download code to get the album as mp3s.