It has been four years since we have heard new material in bulk from Antony Hegarty and his Johnsons, and with new release Turning being a live album soundtrack (albeit to a new concert film documentary) that will extend into a fifth. The project does go some way to explaining his absence of recent though, seeing as Antony and collaborator Charles Atlas have spent seven years producing the film, and another year and a half showcasing it around a number of film festivals. So we can’t go around calling these ‘his barren years’ just yet.
One new piece we have heard from the group over the last few years however was the live album, Cut The World, cut ‘Future Feminism’, an epic seven minute spoken word effort in which Antony takes aim at patriarchal monotheisms and advocates for a shift towards matriarchal governance in an effort to avert global ecological disaster. It is a striking and graceful piece of writing, considered in its construction and powerful in its informally personable delivery. And it suitably goes hand in hand with this project. Let me explain:
As part of their 2006 European tour, Antony & The Johnsons performed in front of the aforementioned artist Charles Atlas’ live video portraits of 13 women alongside them on stage, harking back to Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Beautiful Girls screen tests, “exploring the intersection between images of contemporary trans-femininity and visions of pioneering future feminist artists“. The film is an ode to modern femininity and future feminism, both of which have in one way or another exploded into popular culture and public consciousness, specifically in the last three or four years. If you want to get all hipster about it, technically Antony was there first and so Turning is of greater importance and validity than the more recent entrances of Beyonce or Taylor Swift to the feminism fray and equal social rights movement. Obviously that would be missing the point entirely but if it gets you to watch and listen and engage with Antony Hegarty as an artist then think that. Or actually don’t. Go away. And don’t come back until you’ve re-educated yourself into a state of blubbering repentance. If you’re looking for a limp reason to get into Antony & The Johnsons, then Hegarty had what seemed to be quite a beautiful relationship, both artistically and platonically, with the late great Lou Reed, as evidenced in his tribute to him the day after Reed’s death.
Turning’s audio release is a typically beautiful affair, just as stirring and emotionally invigorating in its instrumentation and in keeping with each of the studio versions style and form. This group of songs hold enough groundswell that they need not be reimagined and reconstructed for live settings. Traditionally good live performances tend to bring greater urgency and reactionary sentiment to an acts repertoire, and whilst there are plenty already in this set culled from the two albums the group had already released (Antony & The Johnsons and I Am Bird Now) and the two they would go onto release (The Crying Light and Swanlights), the greatest weight behind these numbers is surely the 13 women, and the artistic concept to their presence and performance they bring, whilst accompanying the band on stage. Hence them making a concert film of it. Antony explains it better than I…
“One of the reasons we made Turning is because we were not sure we “got” turning ourselves! The form was mesmerizing and we just kind of fell into it. It came to mean a lot of different things to different people. For me, what is interesting and relevant about Turning today is its intuitive embrace of the intersection between trans-feminism and “Future Feminism,” a genre of feminism that I have been working with several of the women involved in Turning to articulate over the last few years. At the heart of Turning is the impulse to form a circle of community and create space for each other, to witness and empower one another.”
Of all the songs ‘F,or Today I Am A Boy’ in particular takes on even greater pertinence in this setting as a deeply personal song confronting gender identity (“when I feel a little embarrassed by something, that’s probably a good sign. It’s how I felt with ‘For Today I Am a Boy'”) and rightly is received as the pinnacle moment of the show.
As always we need to talk about Antony Hegarty’s vocals. The most distinctive and original voice in modern music is the most fitting for a project dealing with the subject at hand; equal parts delicate, challenging and domineering, vulnerable yet powerful. He inhabits every second of every song, the ghost of his vocal haunts every instrumental moment, and he is characteristically on form here.
In truth Antony & The Johnsons could tour playing set lists filled exclusively with covers of novelty Christmas records and they’d make it a stunning ethereal experience. Turning is yet another great live album from the band, and an even more spectacular and important endeavour. Antony feels increasingly like an important artist as his scope grows and he is allowed the freedom he deserves. I am sure we can expect to be excited by even more of a similar ilk to this from him in the future.