The black-and-white image of legendary Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno that adorns the cover of The Crying Light, the third full-length by Antony and the Johnsons, seems to offer a view of a being enveloped in both ecstasy and agony -- or does it? The songs contained here offer something else: a glimpse of a universe beyond the pale of vision, seen only by the individual experiencing it. Antony Hegarty recorded and considered 25 songs for inclusion on The Crying Light, before settling on ten. The Johnsons are the inimitable cellist Julia Kent, Thomas Bartlett, Maxim Moston, Rob Moose, Jeff Langston, Parker Kindred, Doug Wieselman, and Will Holshouser. The additional orchestra includes Greg Cohen, Suzy Perelman, Tim Albright, and Lisa Albrecht, to name a few. Hegarty and composer Nico Muhly did the string arrangements. The Crying Light preoccupies itself with very different concerns than either of its predecessors. Whereas the material on I Am a Bird Now focused on sadness -- grasped and projected -- and in some cases real redemption, these songs look at a larger universe as reflected in the mirror of the individual. The natural world, the vast landscape of interconnectivity with all things, seems to be the primary focus on which the individual protagonists focus their gazes. That doesn't mean that the viewpoint of the singer is necessarily more optimistic. If anything, the truth offered here, and there is plenty of it, is acceptance. Musically, the softness and restrained textural lushness -- always propelled by the intimate, mysterious, exploring piano of Hegarty -- is highlighted by his voice that bears the traces of every heartbreak ever confessed, every quiet yet desperate hope ever held, and each prayer whispered to an unknown and unknowable God.
Neo-classical underpinnings are entwined lovingly with broken pop songs and secretive after-hours cabaret poems. Check the opener, "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground." The piano and cello fall together as one slow dancer, alone in the spotlight, keeping memory as time: "In the garden, with my mother/I stole a flower/With my mother, in her power/I chose a flower/I saw six eyes glistening in my womb/I felt you calling me in the gloom/Rest assured your love is pure...." The power of Mother Nature as it echoes inside the individual with all of its power and impersonal tenderness is embraced, accepted for what it teaches as well as what it offers. Elsewhere, on the gorgeous chamber pop of "Epilepsy Is Dancing," terror, power, and beauty are wrapped as one entity: "Epilepsy is dancing/She's the Christ now departing/And I'm finding my rhythm/As I twist in the snow...Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner/Oh now it's passing/Oh now I'm dancing." Curse and blessing, sacrament and damnation. Other standouts, including the utterly gorgeous, elliptical "One Dove" and the single "Another World," reflect similar themes, though always from the projection of the most hidden flicker that seeks union with a larger illumination. Certainly this is spiritual, but it is not limited to that because it also exists in the physical world. Death is the constant undercurrent, but it's not so much morbid as another shade of the verdant universe. "Kiss My Name" is the hinge track, in waltz time with lovely reeds and violins, skittering with a drum kit -- it is both an anthem of love to life itself and a self-penned epitaph in advance. Whatever hopes you held in the aftermath of I Am a Bird Now, they have been exponentially exceeded in poetry, music, and honesty here.