Antony and the Johnsons kind of fell on to this Earth almost serendipitously. I remember a small club show in Toronto back in the early 2000s just before their debut was re-released in 2004 and way before their follow-up I Am a Bird Now garnered some serious indie attention. Ill-prepared, I was witness to a shaking of my very core from this 6’ 4” transgender creation as he wavered in such beautiful operatic precision about the delicacy of love and acceptance and nature and beauty. It was such an incredible moment to be a part of, specifically because it showed me something that I never even knew was missing. This is the magnificent power that Antony and the Johnsons possess in their live performances—they reflect such luminescent beauty to such an unprepared audience. To be witness to their true power is to see them live.
And so, this brings us to their first live album Cut the World, which is preceded by a studio recording of the track “Cut the World” for the new theatre art piece “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic” starring Marina Abramovic, Willem Dafoe and Antony. The piece, a theatrically lush recording, almost serves as a prelude to the rest of the album, unnecessarily so as the rest of the album stands quite solidly on its own introduced by an intelligent and insightful speech by Antony. That track is called “Future Feminism” and runs for more than seven minutes and at no point does it cross into the pretentious and preachy political art terrain. Instead it’s enlightened and quite intelligent, bridging all the varied and often times chaotic meanings in the songs that were chosen for this live collection. Beginning with an astute observation about the moon cycles and menstruation, Antony begins to discuss the revolutionarism in imagining the various religious deities as reincarnated in the female form. A self-confessed witch, s/he proclaims that transgendered beings (himself/herself included) exist outside of the realm of dominant patriarchal religious institutions (e.g., Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.). Transgenered individuals simultaneously bridge and yet circumvent our basic understanding of gender and sexuality and how they function almost too rigidly in our society. Instead of Antony using this sometimes unsettling notion to frighten and scare us like so many gothic punksters before him, he uses it as a means to love and accept and illuminate the wondrous and beautiful possibilities that exist within humanity when its not forced into narrow confines.
And so begins the music. If you didn’t know it was a live album from the beginning, you’d never be able to tell. All performances, Antony’s voice, the orchestral arrangements, are all so incredibly perfect you’d be amazed that they didn’t actually spends hours upon hours in the studio perfecting every little note and melody. Three tracks in and the live set finally begins with “Cripple and the Starfish” from their debut album, a track about abuse and love and the obsession one has with masochism and sadism.
Gusting forward, you begin to hear the common narrative that runs throughout this set. Seldom is anything left to chance for Antony. Every release is an artistic expression, every choice that it made carries some intention on his part. “You Are My Sister” from I Am a Bird Now attempts to heal the wounds gained from the track previous. Antony crisscrosses between nature and spirituality plucking beauty from all aspects of his/her music, and never once overburdening the listener with too many arduous concepts that you are exhausted trying to follow. The common thread is actually quite simple: the longing for love and the desire to give love.
It’s difficult to analyze Antony’s music in the same fashion as so many others because quite honestly, his/her music is so distinctive that it cannot be easily transferred to typical notions of pop music. It’s never over-laboriously artistic that listening to it is like listening to nails on a chalk board, but it isn’t immediately inviting to the untrained ear. This ain’t your Katy Perry unplugged album. And while true career stunners like “Hope There’s Someone” and “My Lady’s Story” are missing from this collection, the arrangements of “Epilepsy Is Dancing”, “The Crying Light” and “You Are My Sister” don’t ever make you miss their absence.
What Antony and the Johnsons’ music attains is that rare moment after the pain and hurt and abuse and ridicule and resentment and exclusion begins to fade and you yearn for someone to love you without exception and unconditionally. Their music is more than a simple lullaby, but rather a healing agent. And in those moments where you hear the orchestra swell and his voice raise while he’s singing the most perfectly astute lyrics (such as “cut me in quadrants / leave me in the corner / oh, now it’s passing / oh, now I’m dancing” from “Epilepsy Is Dancing”), you believe that music really does have that capacity to be mend the physical, emotional and spiritual scars that you’ve accumulated from living on this planet. Cut the World manages to encapsulate that emotion, and it’s wonderful.