5 Records I Recommend to the Dying (PART 1 OF 5)

by David Schwittek

We all have desert island lists, those ultimate collections of our most necessary albums; the ten albums we would insist on having were we stranded on a desert isle, possibly until the end of our days. Such a list must span the whole range of emotional needs we would face were we consigned to a perdition so tropical and insular. The thing about desert islands is, though they be surrounded by water and are certainly beautiful, you can not drink any of this water and they are maddeningly difficult to survive on…without a little help from your friends.

The aforementioned list is crucial, and everyone who appreciates music should, by all rights, have a desert island list. For bonus points, this list should literally be manifested in a playlist, on a device such as an iPod. This iPod should, of course, be accompanied by a solar-powered speaker dock.  The aforementioned all goes without saying.

Likewise, many of us may have breakup lists, for those times just after we have forced another human being out of our valuable personal space and bid them a final adieu. Some have lists of albums they despise, though Pitchfork and Rolling Stone tell them to feel otherwise.  Many of us may have wedding lists: those albums or songs we wish to hear at our wedding. Still others may have a list of music they wish to hear at other peoples’ weddings. And so on.

The following list is one I would recommend to the doomed individual I might chance upon: one who will surely die and has little time to navigate through the pretense and misplaced enthusiasm of modern pop sensibility. No one wishes to hear Taylor Swift or Pharell as they breathe their last and go unto that Suge Knight. For these unfortunate souls, there is the Death Bed List. In no particular order, I shall begin with The Crying Light by Antony and the Johnstons (2009).

1.) The Crying Light – Antony and the Johnstons

The Crying Light – Antony and the Johnstons

I shouldn’t really stress the obscurity of this album, for it was #1 on the European Billboard Top 100 Chart. Europeans, it would seem, are not stupid. You, however, are not European. Case in point: The Crying Light appeared at number 16 on the Pitchfork Top 50 Albums of 2009, and number 65 (?!) on the US Billboard Top 200 Chart; not abysmal, but certainly forgettable.

What I can stress about this album is its status as more of an orchestral think piece, richly ornamented with Antony Hegarty’s mournful libretto;  a series of paeans to homosexuality, environmentalism, past lovers, gender confusion, and the sad what-have-yous of life who watch sunrises from their windows, dream of John Donne and Marc Bolan rising from their graves and, thereupon, have them gleefully amalgamate into a kind of effeminate Frankenstein-monster.

Consider these lyrics, for example, from the title track:

I was born to adore you/As a baby in the blind

I was born to represent you/To carry your head into the sun

To carve your face into the back of the sun

Subtle poetry that is mere foil to the lush, orchestral arrangements that vocalist Antony and composer Nico Muhly devised for this album. So important were these orchestrations that Antony and the Johnsons gave seven symphony-backed concerts in 2008, ahead of The Crying Light’s 2009 release on the Secretly Canadian label. Home to such post-millennial wunderkinds as Animal Collective, Jason Molina, Magnolia Electric Co, and the delightful ‘Songs: Ohia’, Secretly is, in many respects, the perfect label for this odd band. But there is something very bande à part about them and, in particular, this majestic album.

Consider Everglade, whose passages seem timidly plucked from early seventies romantic dramas, or the sappy gloom of an early Andrew Lloyd Webber trainwreck.  To wit, these songs embrace much of the same theatrics found in the time-honored, broadway-phylic, LGBT musical canon (think Hedwig, or Gary Glitter). But there’s something fresh and overtly personal here. Antony writes and sings as if each song is his last, and this bravery bears more resemblance to a one-woman-show than an indie rock offering.

But if you’re looking for highly compressed, auto-tuned renditions of mawkish, easily digestible clichés a’la Fox’s Glee, you won’t find them here, friend. This is deeply challenging music, conceived somewhere between the warm elegance of sunset and the cold trappings of a death bed.

Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner.

– from Epilepsy is Dancing.

You fall into one of two camps: someone who has heard of Antony and the Johnstons, or someone who has not. If you haven’t, you’re just not listening. If you have, you heard them in American Apparel and Shazam’ed dem shits, cause you’re ignorant (albeit resourceful). If you fall into neither of these categories, then you work at Pitchfork (or write for this blog…)

All of this is fine, because you’ve found yourself here, reading this selfsame post, about none other than Antony and The Johnstons. On any given day, if one found himself still interested in this startling and fascinating group of musicians, I might point him to a massive, and at times unwieldy, network of information, tied together by numerous ‘search engines’, containing community-driven encyclopedias artfully nicknamed ‘Wikis’, and besotted by so, so much porn.

In short, google it.

But if you must insist on hearing one particular album from Antony and the Johnstons; one fragile and ephemeral creation; one that still touches my heart deeply, then I suppose I could lay it on you this one time. I give you The Crying Light.

5 thoughts on “5 Records I Recommend to the Dying (PART 1 OF 5)

  1. More than almost any artist making music today, Antony Hegarty’s voice transcends the idea of “vocals” and becomes another instrument in the arrangement. So much so that I rarely catch the often staggeringly beautiful lyrics.

    Obviously Hagerty has a voice that is stronger and more perfect than the guttural rock and roll barks used by everyone from Mick Jagger, to Bruce Springsteen to that dude from the Fuck Bottoms, but I am talking about something different than perfection. The most perfect vocalists do something different. Marvin Gaye, Christian Aguillera, Freddie Mercury… these perfect singers use their vocals in a very vocally (?) way. There are histrionics involved.

    Antony utilizes his (he still identifies as male, right?) perfect voice in a way that other singers rarely do. The only folks who come close to this effect are Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone and Thom Yorke. There may be a few others, but singers are rarely this brave. Bjork? Does Justin Vernon do it sometimes?

    There is just something transcends language, or lyrics when someone like this sings. Maybe that is why so many people are so helpless when it comes to this band. I have found that people (including myself) don’t even know how to talk about their love and identification with Antony and the Johnsons. It’s too personal. Too close to home. I think a lot of it has to do with Antony’s ability to twist his voice into something bizarre and wounded and naked.

  2. I think ‘wounded and naked’ sums it up: he is just so unique and comfortable within his own, confused vocal space. It’s quite hard to say anything, really, so sublime is the quality of his sound.

    1. As someone who can’t get around lyrics in music, I can say that this guy is pretty remarkable. There aren’t many who hit the voicebox lottery who also know how to use words too add that extra tangential dimension to the sounds they make. Here the lyrics serve the vocals just as the vocals serve the overall arrangement.

      He knows how to take the emotion he’s feeling and transfer it directly to his listener. Its awe inspiring, really.

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