Any discussion of Cut the World, the new album by Antony and the Johnsons – or any of the band’s recordings – needs to begin with singer Antony Hegarty’s voice. (I was going to say “front man Antony Hegarty,” but I’m not sure if that’s the preferred nomenclature for a transgendered singer.) It’s a stellar instrument, invoking and even eclipsing other androgynous voices such as Nina Simone’s, and capable of an astounding range of emotions. But on Cut the World, Hegarty’s first live recording, that emotion is mostly melancholy.
Recorded live in Copenhagen with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Hegarty reinterprets some of his older material and adds one new song, and the result is a very different – but incredibly effective - 53 minutes of music (and a startlingly ineffective seven minutes of talking, but we’ll get to that). At no point does this feel like a live album. The instrumentation is so flawless and precise, and Hegarty’s singing so sublime that it seems as if it couldn’t have been produced without studio interference. But that’s Hegarty’s greatest strength – the voice needs no help. Hegarty could be singing the user manual to a blender and it would instantly become a profound treatise on modern food consumption. His voice does that.
The fact that his chosen topics are much deeper – sexuality and nature have always been at the center of Hegarty’s oeuvre – illustrate why Hegarty is no ordinary vocalist. It’s easy to sound pompous when singing a solemn number such as “I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy” if you can’t actually sing. Not so with Hegarty; his lyrics and the way he exquisitely wraps his voice around them make for an unforgettable listening experience. The words are as sad as are the way he sings them. Yet somehow the album as a whole is uplifting.
“You Are My Sister” beautifully addresses a figurative (or possibly even literal) sister and offers a strong message of support as the Chamber Orchestra runs through its well-placed peaks and valleys. On “Cripple the Starfish” Hegarty addresses dysfunctional relationships over an always building, Dvorak-esque score, singing “I always wanted love to be filled with pain and bruises” and “I am very very happy, so please hurt me.”
The highlight of the album is the sole new song and title track, “Cut the World.” Another discourse on feminism, with Hegarty intoning “For so long I've obeyed that feminine decree / I've always contained your desire to hurt me,” Hegarty desperately wants to strike back at any sort of oppression. The song is even more powerful in the frightening Nabil-directed video starring Willem Dafoe and Game of Thrones’ Carice Van Houten – this is not a metaphorical revenge that Hegarty’s feminine side is hoping to exact.
If there is a miss on the album, it’s the second track, a seven-minute spoken word piece called “Future Feminism” in which Hegarty ponders menstruation, God, gender, and Heaven, seemingly making it up as he goes along. Seen in concert or as a statement on a website the diatribe might make sense, but here it comes off as art for art’s sake.
However, the folly of “Future Feminism” isn’t nearly enough to derail this wonderful collection of songs. Even with 42 musicians playing behind him, it’s clear that the audience – in Copenhagen and listening at home – need only to hear that voice.