Antony & The Johnsons
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Antony & The Johnsons (2000) , 6.5/10
I Am a Bird Now (2005) , 6.5/10
The Crying Light (2009), 6.5/10
Swanlights (2010) , 6.5/10
Anohni: Hopelessness (2016), 5/10
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New York-based androgynous singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty (born in Britain, raised in California) formed the Johnsons and released Antony & The Johnsons (Rebis, 2000 - Secretely Canadian, 2005), an album of sophisticated pop songs. The noir, expressionistic ambience and a vibrato baritone reminiscent of Roxy Music's Brian Ferry crafted a damaged, less than human mood that constantly threatened to derail the linear arrangements. His art may appear to be a monotonous outpour of magniloquent feelings, but it ranges from the operatic martial piano-based lied Twilight to the tragic music-hall Hitler In My Heart and to Blue Angel, the most similar to the passionate delivery of Nick Cave (which, in an ideal world, would be his saintly alter-ego). The textures are fairly simple but effective, with violin and horns joining the soaring hymn of Cripple And The Starfish (possibly the standout), harp and flute for the tender lament Rapture, clarinet and violin for the stately Divine. The voice is centerstage from beginning to end. This is fundamentally a recital.

His voice was the protagonist of I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian, 2005), a warm, intimate, humane portrait of his obsessions that seemed to be the exact antithesis of the debut album. Amid spare arrangements of strings and piano, that voice embodied romanticism like few great voices of the past (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley), and often impersonated the tragic hero of a decadent musichall show in an offbeat Broadway theater. Pathos is the "raison d'etre" of the piano-based hymn-like Hope There's Someone (one of his charismatic numbers). Even more mournful, My Lady Story exudes the poignancy of a spiritual, while the slightly more extroverted For Today I Am A Boy is vibrant like gospel music. Antony has a preference for the chamber setting of piano and strings, a fact that lends an austere and ultimately cold quality to elegies such as Man Is The Baby. The contrast between his highly emotional vocals and the relative detachment of the instrumental background fuels most of the dynamics. When they work together, part of the appeal disappears, as in Fistful of Love, an old-fashioned soul ballad that blends Elvis Presley and Jackie Wilson. Featuring guests of honor such as Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart and even Culture Club's Boy George, and wildly overrated by part of the press, the second album basically legitimized Antony's self-deprecating art.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Antonio Buono)

L’androgino cantautore Antony Hegarty (nato in Inghilterra, trasferitosi in California e poi a New York, dove risiede) forma i Johnsons e pubblica Antony & The Johnsons (Rebis, 2000 - Secretely Canadian, 2005), un album di sofisticate canzoni pop. L’atmosfera noir, espressionista e un baritono vibrante che ricorda il Brian Ferry dei Roxy Music forgiano un umore guasto, tutt’altro che umano, che minaccia di continuo di far deragliare i lineari arrangiamenti. La sua arte può apparire un monotono sfogo di emozioni magniloquenti, e invece oscilla dal marziale lied operistico incentrato sul piano di Twilight al funesto music-hall Hitler In My Heart fino ad arrivare a Blue Angel, quella più vicina al canto impetuoso di Nick Cave (che, in un mondo ideale, sarebbe il suo alter-ego santo). Le composizioni sono abbastanza semplici ma efficaci, con il confluire di trombe e violino nell’enfatico inno di Cripple And The Starfish, di arpa e flauto per il tenero lamento di Rapture, di violino e clarinetto per la maestosa Divine. La voce è al centro della scena dall’inizio alla fine. L’album è fondamentalmente un recital.

La sua voce è protagonista anche su I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian, 2005), una caldo, intimo, ritratto umano delle sue ossessioni che sembra essere l’esatta antitesi del disco di debutto. Tra esili arrangiamenti di archi e piano, quella voce incarna romanticismo come poche grandi voci del passato (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley), e spesso impersona l’eroe tragico di un musichall decadente in un teatro fuori Broadway. Il pathos è la "raison d’etre" dell’inno pianistico Hope There's Someone. Persino più addolorata, My Lady Story emana l’intensità di uno spiritual, mentre l’appena più estroversa For Today I Am A Boy è vibrante come un gospel. Antony ha un debole per l’accompagnamento cameristico di piano e archi, cosa che conferisce una qualità austera e, in definiva, fredda a elegie come Man Is The Baby. A fornire carburante alla musica il contrasto tra i suoi vocalizzi altamente emotivi e la relativa neutralità dello sfondo strumentale. Quando vanno di pari passo, scompare parte del fascino, come in Fistful of Love, una ballata vecchia maniera che fonde Elvis Presley e Jackie Wilson. Con un cameo di ospiti d’eccezione come Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart e Boy George dei Culture Club, e ampiamente sovrastimato da una parte della stampa, il secondo album legittima sostanzialmente l’arte auto-biasimante di Hegarty.

The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian, 2009) manages to increase the relevance of both arrangements and vocals at the expense of neither. On one hand the neoclassical orchestration (mostly by Nico Muhly) creates its own world of unspoken emotions, like the background of a portrait that is in itself a statement about something bigger and more personal than the person being portraited. The musicians (notably cellist Julia Kent, violinist Maxim Moston, horn player Doug Wieselman, and guitarist Rob Moose) weave parallel motifs into the plot of the song. On the other hand, Antony's voice is even more centerstage, to the point that this feels indeed like a portrait. Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground relies on the gentle counterpoint between instruments and voice. The melody is quite trivial, though, and the instruments dominate the proceedings to the point that one wonders if Antony may be spoiling the music. A stronger melody (reminiscent of Merseybeat and bubblegum tunes) propels the more lively Epilepsy Is Dancing. Antony seems inherently incapable of populating a song with more than sporadic notes, while a graceful and dreamy orchestration fills the blanks. Sometimes the instrumental score and the vocal acrobatics seem to belong to two different albums. For example, One Dove is a miracle of equilibrium among neoclassical, pop and jazz elements (and possibly the instrumental standout of the album), but vocally it is just a whine that makes Morrissey sound entertaining. The vocals are rarely the good news. Perhaps the agonizing gospel Another World and especially the soaring gospel Aeon (however dejavu it may be) are the main exceptions to the rule. Daylight And The Sun, the longest piece at six minutes, possibly finds the best balance between instruments and voice, a romantic piano sonata perfectly grafted onto an expressionist lied. Most haunting moment: Dust And Water, an a-cappella African chant against a droning choir that disposes of the burder of arrangement. Most moving moment: Everglade, the closer, which finally pairs a decent vocal melody (albeit this one heard before in the annals of pop and showtunes) with matching orchestration. But these two successes come at the expense of the ambitions: elsewhere Antony's partners were striving for free-form abstract music, while here it's old-fashioned orchestral pop or no orchestra at all. Despite the obvious ambitions and the painstaking care in composing the music and the words, too many moments end up sounding plain and uninspired. Kiss My Name is a facile pop number, whichever way you look at it, with lounge-style accompaniment. A cursory comparison with the great concept of the same year, the Antlers' Hospice, is telling: the Antlers are much more creative in their use of both voice and arrangement.

Swanlights (Secretly Canadian, 2010), after the mantra invocation Everything Is New, is split harmoniously between the lively celebrations of life (the piano lied with Bjork Fletta, the poppy single Thank You for Your Love) and the somber meditations on death (the requiem The Spirit Was Gone). The neoclassical influence is stronger than ever on Salt Silver Oxygen and I'm in Love (drenched in winds, strings, upright bass and piano).

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Ferdinando Vella)

The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian, 2009) riesce ad accrescere l’importanza degli arrangiamenti e del canto, senza che nessuna delle due componenti ne faccia spese. Da una parte l’orchestazione neoclassica (perlopiù di Nico Muhly) crea il proprio mondo di emozioni senza voce, come se lo sfondo di un ritratto riuscisse a dire qualcosa di più importante e personale della persona ritratta. I musicisti (in particolare la violoncellista Julia Kent, il violinista Maxim Moston, il cornista Doug Wieselman e il chitarrista Rob Moose) riescono ad intrecciare motivi diversi sul tema di una stessa canzone. Dall’altra parte la voce di Antony è ancor più protagonista, a tal punto che si ha la sensazione di essere davvero di fronte ad un ritratto. Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground si affida all’elegante contrappunto tra strumenti e voce. Ma la melodia è piuttosto banale, e gli strumenti dominano la struttura che si finisce per chiedersi se Antony non stia rovinando la propria musica. Una melodia più intensa (che ricorda il Merseybeat e sonorità bubblegum pop) dà energia a Epilepsy Is Dancing. Antony sembra geneticamente incapace di riempire una canzone con più di qualche sporadica nota, mentre un’orchestrazione elegante e trasognata riempie i vuoti. A tratti sembra che la parte strumentale e le acrobazie vocali appartengano a due album diversi. Ad esempio One Dove è in miracoloso equilibrio tra sonorità neoclassiche, pop e jazz (ed è forse la migliore parte strumentale dell’album), ma vocalmente è una lagna che rende divertente anche Morrisey. Raramente le parti vocali portano a qualcosa di buono. Le uniche eccezioni alla regola sono forse il gospel agonizzante di Another World e in particolare il gospel in crescendo Aeon (per quanto si tratti di un déjà vu). Daylight And The Sun, il brano più lungo (sei minuti), trova forse il miglior equilibrio tra parte strumentale e voce, una romantica sonata per pianoforte perfettamente incastonata in un lied espressionista. Il momento più incantevole è Dust And Water, canto africano a cappella che si scontra con un coro ronzante, che si carica il peso di tutto l’arrangiamento. Il momento più commovente è Everglade, brano di chiusura, in cui finalmente una buona parte vocale (benché già sentita negli annali del pop e degli showtunes) si sposa coerentemente con l’orchestrazione. Ma sono due canzoni riuscite a spese dell’ambizione: altrove i colleghi di Antony si battono per la musica astratta free-form, mentre qui troviamo un’orchestra pop vecchio stile, o addirittura nessuna orchestra. Malgrado le evidenti ambizioni e la cura scrupolosa nella composizione della musica e delle parole, troppi momenti dell’album sono modesti e senza ispirazione. Kiss My Name è una superficiale canzone pop, da qualsiasi prospettiva la si guardi, accompagnata da uno stile lounge. Un rapido confronto con un grande concept dello stesso anno, Hospice degli Antlers, ci suggerisce che questi ultimi sono di gran lunga più creativi nell’uso sia della voce sia degli arrangiamenti.

 

Swanlights (Secretly Canadian, 2010), dopo l’invocazione mantra di Everything Is New, si divide armoniosamente tra vivaci inni alla vita (il lied per pianoforte Fletta, con Björk, il singolo pop Thank You For Your Love) e cupe meditazioni sulla morte (il requiem The Spirit Was Gone). L’influenza neoclassica è più forte che mai in Salt Silver Oxygen e I’m In Love (imbevuta di fiati, archi, contrabbasso e pianoforte).

Antony Hegarty changed name again and, under the new moniker Anohni, re-debuted with Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian, 2016), a collaboration with British producer Hudson Mohawke (who worked with Kanye West) and with synth-master Oneohtrix Point Never. which is simultaneously a dance record and a protest album. Middle age can be brutal. You start ranting against everything and everybody because you are beginning to realize that the world doesn't need you anymore and that you are rapidly becoming an unwelcomed guest in that rapidly changing world that you can't understand anymore. Antony may have picked all the right reasons to rant against the powerful and the rich, but it sounds monotonous and irrelevant when she doesn't also mention that most wars have ended, fewer people are being murdered in the world, and most of the nations that used to be starving colonies now are rising even faster than the old imperial nations. If you don't fall asleep after opening soul ballad Drone Bomb Me, an elegy to the Afghan children waiting to be killed by US drones, there is actually some (symphonic) drama in the climate-change plea 4 Degrees and some pathos in Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth. By the third song, however, the listener realizes that this a parade of endless tedious litanies. The musical peak is Watch Me, both for the vibrant blues refrain and for the sinister arrangement. Hopelessness benefits from the stately chamber arrangement but then turns into a sort of plantation chant with manic synths. Her proverbial vulnerability and fragility have become an excuse to sing in a derelict tone that is appropriate to lament the coming senseless apocalypse but is hardly musical. Her music is not always horrible. It just desperately calls for a less horrible singer. One can respect the ecofeminist activist while at the same time demanding some artistic talent. And of course she carefully avoids telling us how she would keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists. Easy to criticize presidents and generals, harder to actually help the Afghans become as rich and free as she is. It is debatable if the apocalypse is coming because a president uses drones to fight an unpopular war or because the people of his country (like Antony) are indifferent to the tragedies of other nations. By the same token, it is easy for a rich Westerner to rail against the very environmental disasters that made the West rich: what are the other countries of the world supposed to do, refrain from doing what made Antony rich? She sings "I don't want your future", not "I don't want my present". Protest songs are easy to write.

She contributed Manta Ray (2016) to the soundtrack of an environmental film.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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