By Greg Salter
It’s worth taking a moment to think back to when I Am A Bird Now, Antony Hegarty’s still incomparable second album as Antony and the Johnsons, was released early in 2005. His self-titled debut album had emerged back in 2000, and had seemingly caught the ears of a small but very devoted audience, including Lou Reed and Devendra Banhart, who rallied for a label to back Antony’s unique vision and devastating voice. For many listeners, including myself, I Am A Bird Now was a quiet revelation – it’s hard to think of another album that is so melodically rich, so honest and intimate, with ten songs that spoke to you with the openness of an old friend. Antony’s voice certainly helped; with its quivering strength, it sounded like it emerged from between spaces, speaking with a strange power and precision.
Since then, of course, has come critical and certain amount of commercial success – a Mercury Music Prize win, gigs that have become concerts that have become full on cultural events (this year’s Meltdown at London’s Southbank), an eclectic range of collaborations, EPs and two more albums (2009’s The Crying Light and 2010’s Swanlights). And now Cut The World arrives – it’s essentially a live album, recorded in 2011 in Copenhagen with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, though it certainly also serves as a powerful summation of Antony’s achievements and preoccupations at this point, the end of a period of diligent, powerful work.
As if to make this point, Cut The World starts with two clear statements – the title track opens the album with delicate brass and woodwind arrangements, which rise and fall like swaying tree branches around Antony’s lyrics that sit ambiguously between self and environment (“My skin is a surface to push to extremes”). A seven and a half minute monologue follows called ‘Future Feminism’, where Antony reflects on the natural world, our place within it, and the possibilities for our relationship with the earth in the future. It is, typically for Antony, idiosyncratic but well thought out, reaching from personal experience to global issues with eccentric jumps in thought. But, as an artist, he doesn’t necessarily need to make complete sense – just the fact that he’s raising these questions and considerations on this kind of stage is enough.
These two introductions frame the rest of the material on the record, taken from Antony’s four albums. These songs are obsessed with human relationships, violence, illness, and nature, and how these connect one individual to the wider world. The backing of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra certainly helps to create a kind of tonal unity across these disparate songs – the arrangements here occasionally recall those on Scott Walker’s much more harrowing The Drift, another album by a remarkable singer that reaches effortlessly from the personal to the political and back again. In both cases, orchestral passages sweep from delicate melodies to vast blocks of ambient noise that sound like whole seas moving or mountains falling. The re-worked ‘Cripple and the Starfish’ benefits from this; its lyrics of love and cruelty sounding more beautifully twisted with much bigger, earthly things.
For those who have been following Antony’s progress over the last few years, there are few surprises here – older material has been incorporated with the more orchestral, patient arrangements of his newer songs in a live setting for quite some time. However, this doesn’t stop Cut The World from being a moving, stately meditation on the place of human beings in the world and, more importantly, the future. As closing track ‘Twilight’, another old song beautifully rearranged here, forcefully and urgently plays out, it seems appropriate that Antony’s voice – androgynous, difficult to place, emerging from the margins, and all the more powerful for it – should be the one reminding us of our precarious position in our environment.