It’s been three-and-a-half years since Antony Hegarty and pals released their exceptional sophomore album I Am a Bird Now. With more guest appearances than an episode of The Love Boat, it’s a surprisingly low-key mood piece given it also announced the full-blown arrival of one of the most unique vocalists in pop music. Hegarty’s androgynous trembling brogue has been compared to Bryan Ferry and Nina Simone, but those comparisons are inadequate (as such comparisons almost always are) and Hegarty’s voice has simply got to be heard to be believed. Luckily, that’s easily done, since he followed Bird with all sorts of high-profile collaborations and soundtrack contributions. But for those of us waiting to hear from Hegarty the songwriter, it’s been three mighty cold winters.
The full-length follow-up to Bird, tentatively titled The Crying Light, is preceded by a teaser EP featuring the album’s first single, “Another World,” and five new or new-to-you Hegarty’s compositions. I wouldn’t put it past Another World to grow on me, as Hegarty is one of those vocalists (like Tom Waits and Daniel Johnston) whose work initially strikes you as the weirdest fucking thing you’ve ever heard but magically becomes something you can’t live without a couple of listens later, but rather than being as starkly demure and affecting as Bird, Another World just seems underwhelming. The title track, about the end of the world and boarding a spaceship to another one, starts out beautifully enough with a simple but haunting piano line, some creepy atmospheric woodwinds, and Hegarty all but weeping about how much he’s going to miss the trees, sea and wind. But there’s no discernible bridge or chorus and the spooky theatrics aren’t enough to hold the song together; ironically, it doesn’t ever go anywhere.
The same can be said for closer “Hope Mountain,” which aside from a few intermittent outbursts of french horns that I’m guessing come courtesy of Hegarty’s collaborator, modern composer Nico Muhly, is a dour five minutes that feels like 10. Two other tracks, the Oedipal Complex-tinged “Sing for Me” and the torch song “Crackagen,” are far more musically interesting but not exactly hummable; they’re here so Hegarty can vamp. Only “Shake That Devil,” a bluesy shuffle driven solely by drums and saxophone, knocks ‘em dead. With a rascally, gospel-inspired call-and-response structure (there’s that Simone influence everyone’s been talking about), Hegarty sounds positively energized—as well as creepy and freakish. It’s a really exciting moment and, one can hope, a sign of things to come when Crying Light arrives in January.