Although Antony and the Johnsons’ breakthrough (and Mercury Prize-winning) sophomore album, I Am a Bird Now, was mostly about unbearable loneliness and the nature of self-identity (sexual and otherwise), the band’s third album, the sublime The Crying Light, is about bigger-picture issues. Namely, how life intertwines with death, and our place on this planet. So instead of songs about turning into birds, we get songs about how Antony will miss the snow if this Earth ever ends.
Antony’s voice is perfectly tailored for this kind of rumination — his lilting style suggests death hymns — but never before, even given his vocal idiosyncrasies, has Antony taken to center stage like he does on The Crying Light (although the teaser EP, Another World, did point in that direction). Although he was all too eager to step aside on I Am a Bird Now by bringing in guest vocalists including Boy George, Lou Reed and Devendra Banhart, The Crying Light is heavy on Antony and light on the Johnsons, thanks to spacious orchestral arrangements instead of the faint tinges of R&B and blues of his past work.
“Another World” is the sterling example, since there is nothing but a piano line and rare string swirls to provide the counterpoint to Antony’s lamentation about the destruction of nature. Antony actually goes almost completely a capella on “Dust and Water,” the most barren of all the tracks, and the emotional heft of “One Dove” is finally cemented after nearly two minutes of a slow build of the strings and Antony singing without much support.
The epic spaciousness on most of the album makes the more muscular moments ever more powerful. A playful piano line and drum beat provide the relative happiness that drips off “Kiss My Name,” a song about making sure you appreciate the people in your life while you are around. Highlight “Aeon” (a letter of sorts between from an older person to their child, who they hope will take care of them in the future) begins like the more open tracks, but changes gears thanks to a walking guitar riff and Antony’s repeated vocal motif of “You are my baby boy.”
Despite repeated motifs of the overlap between death and life (“Dust And Water”) and graves and dirt (“Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground”), The Crying Light represents a happier Antony. The guy spent two albums fretting over being alone and who he really was or wanted to be, and now he’s worried about the relationship between himself and the planet, and what death means for that connection. The Crying Light is not exactly light and happy stuff, but for Antony, it’s a giant step forward down the path toward personal and artistic happiness.