What becomes of the broken-hearted? Well, some of them take names like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tindersticks and Antony and the Johnsons and create exquisite, 4 a.m. lounge pop for the living, the dead and the disconsolate masses in between.
While the melancholy virtues of the former two outfits are well known by now, the New York-based Johnsons are more of a mystery. Their two releases — a self-titled album and a three-song EP — are only available on Durtro, an obscure UK label operated by David Tibet and his band, Current 93.
Antony, who describes his performance style as “a more aggressive course of faggotry than the average fag might present,” learned his trade through formal university theater training by day and singing and dancing in East Village drag bars by night.
But where some artists camp it up to get silly, Antony does it to get positively celestial. His voice — a weird and spectral distillation of Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Kate Bush and Judy Garland — reaches for the heavens with nearly every phrase, while the nine-piece Johnsons lay a foundation of lush yet minimal chamber orchestral arrangements.
On the full-length release, there also is great songwriting. “Cripple and the Starfish” ends with this verse soaked in dramatic irony — or is it sincerity? “I am very happy/so please hit me/I am so very, very happy/so please hurt me/I’ll grow back like a starfish.”
“Divine,” refers to the late transvestite cult-movie icon as a “supernova,” “a flame on fire” and “the mother of America.”
As good as the nine songs on the debut are, nothing on it really compares to I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy, and the two covers that share the EP, David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s “Mysteries of Love” and “Soft Black Stars,” penned by Current 93’s Tibet.
The title must rate as one of the best ever. And the title track is pure controlled hysterical bliss in three-and-a-half minutes. It begins slowly, Antony’s voice aided only by the tinkling of his piano, then pauses for an excruciating 15 seconds before firing up with soft drum taps, violins and the singer crying out, “No one’s going to take you away from me. … Oh, such a beautiful boy.”
The most glorious single performance on either recording comes on “Soft Black Stars,” another song using only piano, violin and voice. Antony has a gift for rearranging a word — here, it’s “horses” that he reconfigures into the more playful “horsies” — that could sound cheap and ridiculous in the hands of the insincere. But he’s so emotionally naked in his delivery, so affected by what it means that his interpretative pop art soon begins to hint of great literature. As the song winds toward a climax as anguished and hopeful as the one in Wuthering Heights, it’s hard not to imagine yourself crying along with Antony, his hand seeming to reach for yours in the mist.
This is real talent awakening — maybe genius. Is the world ready for a saint and sinner who appears as comfortable in the queer underground as he does knocking on heaven’s door? Let us pray.
E-mail Walter Wasacz at firstname.lastname@example.org.