Live Review: Antony and the Johnsons

March 9th, 2007: As seen on Paste (PDF)

There is no immediate access to Antony and the Johnsons for minds built on pop. Antony’s voice trembles emotions so pure, so unstable, it haunts the unwilling ear. It’s like a young child trying to wrap its head around the opera – there is just no understanding. And it doesn’t help that the dude stands six-feet tall and takes pleasure in androgyny, wearing wigs and make-up, titling songs “For Today I Am A Boy.”

But when you cut through all the preconceived nonsense, break down those foundations of pop and let his fragile, baroque orchestrations wash over your senses, stabilizing the beauty of it all is a passive effort.

Antony is well aware of his effect, especially when his collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic dove three songs deep into the 80-minute set before turning on a single light in the theater. Or when he played the audience for fools and lightened his heavy heart with a cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.”

As an artist, Antony is all about tearing down walls and provoking transformations, broadcasting every shade of the emotional spectrum in the process, with a decidedly shaky vibrato. Sometimes, it’s glaringly obvious, as with the mid-set rendition of “Cripple and the Star Fish” (“I’m changing like the seasons/ Watch! I’ll even cut off my finger/ It will grow back like a starfish”), which featured a stage doused in red light. Other times, he’s subtle, like during “Rapture,” which crescendoed with a snippet from the the Lord’s Prayer. Light shot blindingly white on Antony at that particular moment.

The strings of the Philharmonic were spot-on throughout, magnifying the evening. Antony, usually on keys if anything at all, stood alone on this night, like a beacon of sorrow. Visibly quivering through each inflection, he presented a surprising amount of new material from his forthcoming follow-up to 2005’s I Am A Bird Now. Although, without such a heart-on-sleeve performance, all sense of emotion would have been lost.

The crowd, which was rumored to have hosted fellow New Yorkers Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson (well-known fans of Antony’s), was brimming with fine stabilizers of emotion. So it was fitting that they erupted in applause when Antony had completed his metamorphosis. Their reward – an oldie of an encore called “River of Sorrow” that could only be described as a sonic baptism – found Antony almost falling to his knees:

Can you see the light
At the end of the dark passageway
Take me with you towards this light
Into the darkness passing over the faces in the river
Hear me
I’m whispering in your ear

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