The voice whose unfiltered ostentation fell a thousand ships, gave birth to El Niño, demoted Pluto from its position as the ninth planet in the solar system, and continually ensures the dead do not rise from the grave is somehow amiable in the guise of storyteller. Transgender British chanteuse Antony Hegarty is, to many, an acquired taste, one which seems to require leavening ingredients. When he’s backed by a no-nonsense wash of disco propulsion, as in Hercules and Love Affair’s massive “Blind,” his theatrics are unforgettable. When he’s winding his vocal interpretations around Björk’s own skipping cadences, well, let’s just say it’s a different sort of unforgettable. Antony and the Johnsons’ newest LP proves that his ideal backdrop might just be nothing at all.
With the sort of confident ownership of his performance that also marks the live albums of Erykah Badu and Laurie Anderson, Hegarty interrupts his live orchestral album, Cut the World, practically just as it’s beginning. “Future Feminism,” which follows the album’s first and title cut, allows Hegarty seven and a half minutes with which to summarize his entire gestalt, moving from topic to topic as though the conversation itself is a force of nature. Hegarty muses that our own physiological relationship with the cycles of the moon must be the same as that of Earth’s tides, that the ocean is itself the planet’s form of menstruation, that a key step in his actualization as transgender was to embrace the inner witch (which, of course, required a de-baptism), that humankind is a lost cause if it doesn’t switch over from a patriarchal “system of governance” to an era of matriarchal rule.
Perhaps to some, the lack of a slow, methodical musical structure surrounding these thoughts, or the fact that in spelling his concerns out through conversation instead of veiled insinuation, he notably drops that perilous, outside-of-sane tremolo, might pull the curtains down around his highly cultivated dramaturgy. Only partially. But as Laurie Anderson mused in her own live “talking book,” The Ugly One with the Jewels, “I’ve always thought that one of the biggest defects of the human body was that you couldn’t close your ears.” In other words, the mystery is that we hear regardless of how we process.
Which is good to keep in mind, as the rest of the album is more comparatively straightforward, with Hegarty’s off-kilter sentiments in “I Fell In Love with a Dead Boy,” “Epilepsy Is Dancing,” and “Cripple and the Starfish” all wrapped up in tasteful, Vince Mendoza-lush orchestral arrangements, heavy on the lurching, dirgey chord changes from the string section. It’s sometimes precious even by Hegerty’s standards, but just as often gorgeous, as when he calmly, methodically says his goodbyes to everything natural in “Another World.”