Last Thursday, Antony, golden-voiced Antony and his band the Johnsons, played a packed show at Town Hall after months of touring in Europe, a triumphant return to his adopted hometown of New York City (if you've been following the mini Mercury Awards controversy, you'll know that Antony was in fact born in Chichester, England, which qualified him to be nominated for the prize, and that the Kaiser Chiefs' Nick Hodgson -- not fit to lick Antony's high heels -- has cried foul, saying, "It's daft he got in on a technicality"). It's been a speedy rise: Not so long ago Antony was a consummately New York-ian oddity, a gay cross-dressing cabaret singer who sang melodramatic songs in an absurdly mannered voice, championed by Lou Reed but destined for obscurity. Six months after releasing his astonishingly beautiful second record, "I Am a Bird Now," he's well on his way to stardom, albeit of the cultish, art-house kind.
Antony's music is painful, but it is also sublime; listening to it can be something like watching a person slit his wrists, and then getting carried away by how beautiful the blood looks dripping down his arms. Self-loathing is never far beneath the surface. Singing Lou Reed's "Candy Says" as an encore, Antony stumbled over the second line and had to begin again, explaining "It's a little too personal for me." The lyric is "I've come to hate my body."
The power of Antony's music lies almost entirely in his voice. That's not to say that the songs themselves aren't good; some are a bit meandering and unmemorable, but others -- like "I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy" and especially "Hope There's Someone" -- are remarkable. But his voice overwhelms not just the quality of the songs, but also the often banal gentility of the Johnsons' tasteful chamber pop arrangements. At first I was turned off by the intensity of his vibrato, but I've since realized that it's not like other vibratos, not a sweetening or airbrushing of the voice but something far more violent and extreme, the sound of a voice -- and a soul -- tearing apart.
Antony's recent success has been in part thanks to the support of some of his high-profile fans, including Lou Reed, Boy George, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart, who sang on his record and who sometimes join him during live performances. The Town Hall show featured no special guests, and it was stronger for it. He did, however, call in support in the form of a number of covers, including Nico's "Afraid" and Leonard Cohen's "The Guest," and these were among the strongest pieces of the night. Particularly memorable was a shivering, haunting rendition of Moondog's simple, hymnlike "All Is Loneliness." One of the most memorable moments of the show, unexpectedly, did not involve Antony singing. At one point after the applause had died down, he began whistling little birdcall-like phrases off the microphone, letting the sound melt into the room. Soon people began whistling back at him and, when the more easily tickled members of the crowd had managed to hold in their giggles, it was an extraordinary sound, as if Town Hall had been turned into an aviary for the ghosts of songbirds.