Only the first two tracks on Antony and the Johnsons’ new live album, Cut the World, bear completely new material. The opening title track, “Cut the World,” was written as part of the score for stage production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. It’s enormously dramatic (and deeper than what its more literal video treatment may suggest), and it sets the tone for the rest of what is a pure, cinematic performance. But the second track, “Future Feminism,” is without music.
Rather, in these seven-and-a-half minutes of sincere monologue and wondrous speculation, Antony Hegarty covers an expanse of ideas. The mysterious link between the moon and human bodies, whales crawling out of and back into the ocean in a tireless quest for food, feminine systems of government as the world’s only hope: this is just a sample. But one idea ties all of them—and later, it appears, all of Cut the World—together: that the ecology of the Earth is collapsing.
Antony’s concern goes beyond that of an environmentalist looking out for future generations though; this collapse threatens our spirituality too. “I’ve been searching and searching for that little bit of my constitution that isn’t of this place and I still haven’t found it,” he says, before resolving that “Every atom of me, every element of me, seems to resonate the great world around me.” And if his spirit is of this Earth, where else will it return to once he perishes?
It’s a curious, enlightening, heartfelt look into the radiant, transgendered mind of the ever-distinct Antony. Indeed, the Cut the World is a collection of hits from a handful of Antony and the Johnsons’ studio albums, with original, specially reworked orchestral compositions from Antony, Nico Muhly, and Rob Moose. But Antony’s deceptively well-composed speech helps illuminate the intention behind the songs chosen for Cut the World. The thematic thread of the fragility and preciousness of life, nature, and death becomes all the more apparent. And meaningful.
The mastery of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra helps add to the feeling that this is an important collection. Previously great songs like “Cripple and the Starfish” and “The Rapture” grow to enormous proportions: Antony’s voice is given full reign where it was once necessarily restrained, and those climactic moments in which his most powerful belts are completely blanked, or nearly hidden, in horn blasts and loud strings are blissful and new.
Few songs on Cut The World benefit from the presence of the DNCO more than “I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy.” Urgent, siren-like horns and strings and a crazed Antony begin the piece with a burgeoning intensity not found on the original. Then, nearly twenty seconds of held-breath silence before Antony, sweetly admits, with the accompaniment of a few piano notes, “I fell in love with you/ Now you’re my one and only.” As the orchestra proceeds to slowly, delicately swell around Antony, the whole piece begins to ascend upwards, closing with his brilliant falsetto. It’s a magnificent and intricate composition, as emotionally articulate as music can be.
Even the most difficult listen on the album, “Another World,” is smartly done here. As Antony softly lays down very sincere, maybe very warranted pre-apocalyptic despair over a solo piano, an ominous drone lurks in the background. In effect, the doom is tangible: we can hear this mysterious, encroaching force that’ll soon destroy the sea, animals, and people he loves. How we choose to deal with this drone—ignore it, obsess over it, lament it—offers an interesting artistic barometer of how seriously we cherish our own world.
Antony’s unmistakeable, loveably histrionic voice remains the centerpiece on Cut the World, but his hopeful, melancholic musings achieve an impossible radiance on the stage, surrounded by the talents of so many musicians. There is something new to hear with each repeated listen—an opportunistic twinkle of bells, the highest cries of the sparsest woodwinds, a flourish in Antony’s vibrato. For this, for its sheer beauty and execution, Cut the World is easy to get lost in, to believe in. As with anything from Antony and the Johnsons, what lies therein is emotionally heavy and challenging. But for those willing to weather this masterful storm — what with its warm rain and awesome thunderclaps —Cut the World is compelling enough to change the way we appreciate the world and its sad beauty. There’s simply nothing that sounds quite like this.