Let’s cut to the chase: the lead track to Antony & the Johnsons' new EP Another World is exquisite. If you wanted another tender duet like 'You are my sister' or a full band workout like 'Fistful of love', then you’ll have to wait for the album (due in 2009) but if you’ve been eager to hear whatever Antony chose to do next, four years after I Am a Bird Now, then the title track of the EP, at least, will be a quiet revelation.
'Another World' is, quite literally, a reverse-Genesis, in as much as Antony sketches out the world image by image… but in terms of what he’ll miss: "I’m gonna miss the sea / I’m gonna miss the snow / I’m gonna miss the beach / miss the things that grow…". The accompaniment is minimal – an unresolved piano melody that suggests possible continuations, but somehow preserves all those possibilities (suspended in mid-imagination) so they’re more wistful for never having had material existence on this plane. Even as sound, they remain somewhere in the Floating World. In place of a melodic or lyrical resolution, the softer second-voice deviates subtly, and separates from the first as it deepens, like a shadow darkening and distending as the light moves overhead; at the same time, a treated recorder (and possibly a distorted guitar as well) provide a near-abstract counter-melody – more of a “seagulling” sound, against the sparse notes – that’s vivid as blood-drops on snow.
It’s that simple… and yet it’s anything but throwaway. Now, you can compare it usefully (and favourably) to Louis Armstrong’s 'What a Wonderful World' if you like (it’s similar, with half-as-many notes, and half-as-many verbs – as if Laurie Anderson had rearranged it). As such, it almost seems like a deliberate comment on the impossibility of such optimism, and such an Eden, anymore. Other lyrics invite comparison to John Lennon’s 'Imagine'; "I need another place / will there be peace? / I need another world / this one’s nearly gone / Still have so many dreams…" – again, the ideological problematics of that song will be familiar to all you Weary-Cynics, but Antony doesn’t leave you feeling manipulated.
All that being said, the War for Oil (or, Total Planetary Gang-rape at Gunpoint by Corporate Scumf***s) doesn’t quite account for this particular shade of melancholy. The outer-sleeve photo of a Japanese transvestite performance artist, and the inner ones of a blood (or red paint drenched) female artist, invite an instant reading of this as a song of yearning for the other world that is another gender, or a world that can better tolerate trans-people. Those themes are all over the last two albums, as well as a more optimistic sense of femininity – just the signifiers – as transcendence here and now, whatever your chromosomes. 'Another World' already seems like a suicide note for humanity, but its pathos is doubled because Antony can’t let himself explicitly indulge his most personal themes, as if they’re too small in the grand scheme of things.
What of the other songs? 'Crackagen' and 'Hope Mountain' are pleasant enough, as poems best heard loud to appreciate the subtle inflections. Only one of them ('Sing for Me') could have squeezed onto an earlier album, although the use of long rests make it seem hesitant, rather than serving to create much tension, and the orchestration is barely present. In fact, for an EP with so many other players, it’s surprising how discreet they all are: only shading the sound, and never urging (or urged by) Antony’s voice to bombast, or ecstasy, as before. 'Shake that Devil' is plain weird – it’s an exorcism, but I’m not sure how that helps – after the eerie spoken-word portion (with Metal Machine Music drone), you could imagine it in a Lynch film, while a character’s being introduced as a groovy young blade on the wrong side of the law. "Shake that pig!" go the lyrics, and "shake that dog!" – but it all seems like a performance among the pristine white walls of an art gallery, even after the horns come in with a S!kronk that’s curiously mannered. Compared to James Chance & the Contortions its sexless, and the presence of Tom Waits sideman Greg Cohen on bass makes me think “Waits-pastiche” rather than homage. Still, it’s catchy…
So, how does this bode for The Crying Light (due January 2009, and reported as a double album)? It’s been ten years since Antony recorded the songs that made up his debut, and the second only moved forward in that Antony was symbolically welcomed into the soror-fraternity of Music’s iconic ambisexuals (Boy George, Rufus, Devandra, and Lou Reed, who guested). Here, Antony’s keeping us guessing – he’s not relying on old tricks (yet), and he’s not relying on big names (yet). He’s still got both feet in the world of performance art, but if you’re waiting for something conventionally spectacular, you’ll have to see the shows at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra (October 30 and 31).