To simply listen to Cut the World, the new collection of live recordings from Antony and the Johnsons, is to hear something heartening. It's heartening because of the charm of Antony Hegarty himself, but also because of (in part) what he discusses on the second track, "Future Feminism." This track is Hegarty talking to the crowd about, among other things, how a shift towards femininity in power systems could help fix the world. At one point, though, he talks about how "what's great about being transgender is you're born with a natural religion." This is both a confirmation of faith and a sad admission of isolation since "none of the patriarchal monotheisms will have you," according to Hegarty.
And yet Cut the World is full of beatiful performances, performances that build a bridge to the world, the kind of sounds that can be universally heard, even accepted, as beautiful. In this way, and in a time where we fight over gay marriage (the sheer fact that we set it apart, as "gay" marriage, is troubling) and where major organizations ban gay people, Cut the World is an important record. Antony shares his voice here with both charm and confidence, but he isn't confronting so much as he is inviting in, opening up dialogue simply by making his music shimmer.
As the only new song here, the title track is perhaps the most striking. It's a dramatic opener, one that stuns with Antony's wobbling yet powerful voice and a towering string section. From there, we see Antony rework his songs with the help of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. Recorded in two nights in September 2011, Cut the World features new orchestral arrangements by both Hegarty and renown musicians like Nico Muhly and Maxim Moston. These songs can both succeed in their excess (check the rollicking power of "Kiss My Name") and in their spare quiet (the devastating "Another World").
The setlist plays like a greatest hits from Antony and the Johnsons' four full-lengths, with takes on "Epilepsy is Dancing," "Cripple and the Starfish," "You are My Sister," and others. None sound exactly the same as their album versions, which is the more basic draw of Cut the World, but as a collection this falls in line with most other live records. These give us subtle shifts in the songs we know without ever really upsetting our understanding of them, and while Hegarty's performance is excellent, the shimmering size of these songs plays down the edge of immediacy that lays on the outskirts of the records.
So Cut the World, on musical merit alone, is a solid live recording, one that reminds us of the highlights of Antony Hegarty's career up to now, and hints at future success (this is the finest pure singing of his career). But what ends up making the album worthwhile is more the context in which it's being released. In a time where the U.S. is caught up in ideological and political clashes over gender and sexuality, while individuals go through their own personal struggles, Cut the World is a clear voice of conviction amidst confusion. It doesn't declare ultimate truth so much as it lays its own bare, and does so with a kind of gentle sweetness that's hard to ignore.