So I’ve just got back from a trip to Canada, in which I experienced a world similar to the UK, but bigger in many ways. Many of them food related. I’m talking about gigantic waffles covered in maple syrup and a “small” burger that was about the size of my wall clock.
I helped a drowning raccoon out of a bin full of water only to be reprimanded for interfering with a pest and so then had to hear it’s plaintive cries as it sat on the step outside waiting for the “vet” to arrive. I’m fairly certain the “vet” turned up in a van with a giant dead bug on top and a couple of large wooden clubs for beating small furry animals, but I digress.
I flew with a budget airline. This not only meant I had no legroom and may now have several thick blot clots working their way towards my heart, but I also had plenty of time to listen to music and read without any of those pesky little things like comfort and in-flight entertainment. One of the latest albums to be released and find precious space on my six-year-old-dropped-in-a-pint-of-water-and-dropped-down-the-concrete-stairs-of-my-old-flat mp3 player is Antony and the Johnson’s “Cut The World.”
A couple of weeks old, it’s essentially a live recording of older tracks with a brand new song (the title track) all recorded exquisitely with a full orchestra. It fits on my mental shelf alongside Peter Gabriel’s stunning Scratch My Back and New Blood, both albums reinventing the artist a bit and stripping it down to be all about the songs and voice. It’s not as dramatic a revelation as the aforementioned albums as it’s not such a huge stylistic step, but like Gabriel, Antony has an instantly recognisable, fantastic and powerful voice. It feels totally at home with the swelling horns and floating flutes.
The first time I came across him was when he appeared on Björk’s Volta back in 2007. On first listen, I remember being incredibly annoyed that this wobbling voice was allowed to come and ruin two tracks, but after a few listens something clicked and I started to dig out his albums. Vocally, he shares some similarities with Nina Simone both in tone and sounding somewhat gender neutral. Thematically he feels at home with Rufus Wainwright and Perfume Genius (though not as dark.) I won’t go into much detail about the lyrics as these aren’t new songs and I feel like I’ve been waffling enough. Suffice to say they deal with confusion and gender, sadness and hope, all emotions that are intricate and intertwined in his albums and voice. He is transgender, which gave me a lot of worry with regards to pronouns in this review – I settled with “he” as all interviews seem to use the male terminology while his lyrics use both – and this concept is deeply woven into the music, one of the more affecting being the unanswered question “Are you a girl or a boy?”
It’s a crystal clear recording, and were it not for the slight snippets of audience that are allowed to filter through, albeit at a very low level, that you would assume this was recorded in a hermetically sealed chamber away from all distractions. Not a mistake is made, and the acoustics are unreal, not muffling anything and allowing him to soar as the orchestra comes together with a crescendo in tracks like Cripple and the Starfish. While you lose the atmosphere of the live recording, you do get a deliciously crisp recording (not that people at the gig were likely to have been particularly obnoxious or intrusive) and so I don’t feel like it’s a big loss to have them turned down for the majority. I’m torn between suggesting it as a perfect entry to Antony and the Johnsons, or whether to recommend a trip back through the archives to hear the original tracks first. It’s a great selection of tracks and is sequenced in a pleasing way that flows and feels totally natural, but there is something about the original recordings that speak a little more and I feel they are more direct without that sheen of perfection.
What I’m not so sure about is the inclusion of stage patter in the second track Future Feminism, which far from being a new track (as I assumed) is actually a fairly interesting speech about gender and “spiritualism” (read: bullshit and nonsense about dimensions and the power of the moon.) He has a fairly annoying lilt at the end of most sentences that makes me think he’s saying everything as a question!? It’s seven minutes long, and while parts of it are intriguing, (like his musings on not needing patriarchal religion and about feeling at home, both in gender and in terms of location) other segments such as the water on the earth being “the world’s menstruation” come off as New Age nonsense and fall pretty flat. This isn’t helped by a mix that reduces the audience to a barely heard whisper, leaves pauses for applause as awkward silences. It feels somewhat like hearing one side of a conversation, like you’ve accidentally walked in on Antony while he chats on the phone to his astrologer. Regardless of whether or not you believe (or he believes) what he is saying, it’s still a weird (brave?) thing to include on an live album like this. It does mess with the flow a little. I’m all for small comments (Kurt Cobain’s talk about trying to buy Leadbelly’s guitar on Unplugged for example) but dedicating a whole track and seven minutes feels a bit much.
Despite the disavowing of patriarchal religions, the whole album feels like a hymn or emotional religious hug to the world. Listening to it, it’s hard not to get swept up in this big wave of optimism and kindness, which is sort of what you need when you are trapped in a flying metal box in the sky with at least three small children who decide to be threateningly awake for eight hours.