Antony and the Johnsons, Turning

Brian Howe

By Brian Howe

on 11.11.14 in Reviews

In 2006, Antony and the Johnsons were arguably at the peak of their powers, and certainly at the peak of their commercial impact. They were riding high on their breakthrough (and only Gold-certified) album, 2005′s I Am a Bird Now, which won the Mercury Prize — with a little controversy, as they were based in New York rather than the U.K.

That record instantly vaulted them into the canons of indie- and art-music fans alike by blending chamber opera and cabaret around Antony’s charismatic persona. That focal point was Hegarty’s voice, a protean tenor with a timbre like heavy smoke — an irresistible siren, whether delicately insinuating or wrenched open in a gale-force howl.

It was in the fall of that triumphant year when Antony and the Johnsons collaborated with filmmaker Charles Atlas on Turning, which is partly a concert film of the group’s European tour and partly a celebration, through video portraiture, of transgender women artists. Following a theatrical run in 2011 and 2012, the film now gets a DVD release as well as this CD of a full concert at The Barbican in London.

You may wonder if you need another Antony live album after Cut the World. The short answer is a resounding yes, as this one tops that 2012 set by capturing the group’s classic lineup in its moment of greatest success. I now have three different versions of the R&B-inflected “You Are My Sister” in my iTunes queue, all of them with unique arrangements and emotional emphases, and I wouldn’t part with a single one.

Capturing the group’s classic lineup in its moment of greatest success

Turning features the group subtly revising songs from their first two albums and playing early versions of songs that would appear on future ones, such as The Crying Light, years later. We get stripped-down piano ballads (“For Today I Am a Boy”) as well as more elaborately orchestrated takes, including standouts such as a vertiginously speeding-up “Where is My Power?,” a smoldering “Cripple and the Starfish” and a flinty “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy.”

Most interesting is hearing how songs that were unreleased at the time evolved when they made it to the studio. The Crying Light‘s “One Dove” retains the shape heard here, with a slow but driven rhythm emerging from an atmospheric prelude, but with different innards. Add in a pair of unreleased studio tracks, both minimal gospel songs, and you’ve got a pretty essential Antony record. All of this versioning is befitting of a musician whose main lyrical theme is transformation, from boy to girl to bird, back and forth and back again.