Antony Hegarty has made a career of sounding hyper-emotive. Having one of the most immediately recognizable voices in the current musical landscape, his gentle croons are accented by seemingly inherent vibrato, and accompanied by soft, minimal percussion and epic strings. Antony and the Johnsons’ breakout 2005 release I Am a Bird Now showcased a perfect balance between Antony’s outward insecurities and the employment of his voice as a near-animatronic, androgynous instrument. The record’s stand-out single “Hope There’s Someone” is a crescendoing piece in which Antony wears his heart on his sleeve, displaying his fears of death, loneliness, and eternity.
The Crying Light fails in the same place that its predecessor was so successful. Rather than Antony openly sharing his many insecurities, using his voice as a blue chip, The Crying Light bluffs, showcasing Antony’s voice and not what made it so affecting on the group’s prior releases. This is never more apparent than listening to the increasingly sparse musical backing throughout the disc. While I Am a Bird Now features his voice in the forefront of almost all songs, frequently the group would rely on the sea change of strings to accent his cries. But The Crying Light strands Antony on an island, calling on him to pull all of the weight.
Look no further than “One Dove”, a song that has almost no instrumental backing. For a majority of the track, the only accompaniment is a softly hammered piano and brushed percussion. Meanwhile, Antony’s somewhat cryptic verses (“One dove, I’m the one you’ve been waiting for / From your skin I am born again / I wasn’t born yesterday”) fail to take hold the way his more literal work does. It comes to light, then, that it’s Antony’s literal lyrics that make him so emotionally touching, not his voice itself. Antony is only truly affecting when he reveals his human weaknesses — his robotic, alien voice makes it almost impossible to connect to the performer.
Even when Antony digs deep and gives insight into his life on The Crying Light, it doesn’t seem quite as powerful. “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground”, for example, is a song that paints Antony strolling through a garden with his mother and reflecting on nameless people who he’s lost. But when he sings, “In the garden / With my mother I / Stole a flower” you fail to hear any of the pain that he’s trying to convey — as well as being confused about what he’s trying to convey in the first place — primarily focusing on the imagery rather than his pain.
The problems on The Crying Light are epitomized on “Dust and Water”, a song that sounds like Sigur Rós covering “The Circle of Life”. Interspersed between sonic gibberish are meaningless lines like “Did you think I’d leave you here forever?”. Without a tangible reference, these lines blend into the nonsense Antony sings throughout the rest of the track. “Dust and Water” ultimately shows the thematic and sonic shift from I Am a Bird Now to The Crying Light, the stripping of Antony’s emotional struggles and insecurities in an attempt to foreground his voice.
Antony is at his best when he sounds at his emotional weakest. On I Am a Bird Now, he sounded almost childlike; in fear of things he had no control over, looking for answers that he’ll never find. And though The Crying Light doesn’t offer any retribution or solutions, Antony seems somehow more confident and understanding of his position in the world and afterlife. Without the humanizing aspect of his fragility, he seems increasingly robotic and difficult to connect with. The Crying Light is a record that effectively changes Antony’s character and makes him a difficult entity to relate to, forcing him more into the realm of animatronics than human existence.