Antony & The Johnsons: Swanlights
Radio City Music Hall
Thursday, January 26
Better than: Weeping alone.
The line of people and umbrellas wrapped around Radio City, a noisy, quivering mass of top-flight fashion, boldfaced names, and irritation at the wind and rain and forced wait. Swanlights, the MoMA-commissioned retrospective of the work of Antony and the Johnsons, had sold out the music hall, and the number of people picking up their tickets on the way in was unusually high, according to an usher.
Outside might have been chaos, but inside the mood was the exact opposite; Antony, draped in a white gown and standing in the middle of Radio City’s stage, was the only person uttering anything for most of the evening, his voice soaring and fluttering in concert with the 60-piece orchestra accompanying him. Lasers flashed and projected themselves onto the hall’s magnificent ceiling and the jaggedly grand sculpture above him as he sang, simply, beautifully, achingly, of love and death, light and dark.
The musical fullness behind him only served to heighten the evening’s dramatic tension—the squeak of a piccolo provided a marked contrast to his voice’s rich, deep lushness, while on “Everything Is New” his voice provided a line on which dissonant piano chords danced and swung. At times he’ll repeat a single phrase over and over again, slowly shifting which words and syllables he’ll emphasize; the effect is dizzying, like being stuck in a moment for no other reason than not being able to imagine being anywhere else.
At one point Antony covered Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” the pop superstar’s debut single about her infatuation with her now-husband Jay-Z, and the pairing seemed so utterly natural in the context of Swanlights‘ program that it took me a couple of lyrics to recognize what was going on. Beyoncé’s approach to melody is pretty underheralded, but in the pop world she inhabits it’s singular; she approaches melodic lines from a sideways angle that results in thrillingly unexpected vocal runs and ululations. It’s no surprise that Antony’s voice took on that challenge and ran with it; his compositions, too, approach musical fundamentals from a different place, putting the outsiderdom he sings of into practice.
He did not speak in between songs, letting his instrument—in all its splendor and richness and reservoirs of emotion—do all of the talking, until the very end, after a scrim had been raised and the musiciansthe Johnson Symphony—had been revealed behind him. “Well, that’s, like, the bulk of the show,” he said. “And I’m fucking glad—it was so ambitious, this production! It was really fucking insane.”
The crowd laughed, the tension from the set’s overwhelming emotion popped like a balloon speared by a particularly gorgeous antique knitting needle. Some people, the banter seemingly reminding them that they were at a show in 2012, whipped out their cameraphones to chronicle the moment. Eventually the crowd quieted down and Antony returned to his place in the middle of the stage to start “Salt Silver Oxygen”—only something was off, and he asked for a do-over. (And got it.) That and “The Crying Light,” the title track to his 2009 album, closed the show; he walked offstage and the curtain went down and the house lights went up. But the audience wasn’t done; it remained standing and clapping for a good 10 minutes, at least, until someone backstage turned on even more illumination to let everyone know that the night had, sadly, ended. The crying lights, indeed.
Critical bias: Antony’s voice is an instrument like no other.
Overheard: It was so quiet in the hall I felt bad turning my notebook’s pages at certain points.
Random notebook dump: Dear lady who kept hitting me in the head with her umbrella while shouting for her friend ROSEMARY!!, thank you for making me glad that I had my coat’s hood up.
For Today I Am a Boy
Everything Is New
Crazy In Love
I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy
Dust and Water
Cut the World
Cripple and the Starfish
Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground
Salt Silver Oxygen
The Crying Light