BIG EARS 09: Antony and the Johnsons

Antony and the Johnsons escape camp and get close to the sublime

Break Antony and the Johnsons down to its component parts—frontman Antony Hegarty, a transgendered singer with a multi-octave range and warbly tone and a history in experimental theater and a backing band that includes cello, piano, two violins, horns, and one of the composers for the children's television series The Backyardigans—and you'd probably expect high camp.

That's not a stretch. On three full albums—the self-titled debut from 2000, the Mercury Prize-winning 2005 follow-up I Am a Bird Now, and this year's The Crying Light, plus a handful of singles and EPs—the New York-based Antony and the Johnsons have laid down a body of work marked by its intense seriousness, some of which comes close to ridiculous, and some of which approaches the sublime.

Hegarty's trembling voice is steeped in an almost morose melancholy and fragile Romanticism, and the slow, austere arrangements allow him room to maneuver through vocal melodies that tend to be far more elaborate than the backing music. Most songs, especially on The Crying Light, emphasize the "chamber" side of the "chamber pop" equation—only the Velvet Underground quality of the solo guitar on "Aeon" will serve to remind most listeners that this is actually a rock band.

Even at his most arch, though, Hegarty is capable of profound emotional resonance. The songs on I Am a Bird Now are overtly and explicitly concerned with Hegarty's life as a transgendered person, but the loneliness and hope he expresses—"My womb's an ocean/full of grief and rage" in "My Lady Story" and "One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful girl/But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy," on "For Today I Am a Boy"—ring out universally.