“Out of my stereo came his startling, other-worldly voice, the sound of someone enraptured—or maybe possessed. He seemed to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it."
When music writer Barry Alfonso wrote that, he was recalling his first listen to Appalacian folk legend John Jacob Niles. But it would have been just as appropriate if written about Antony Hegarty, the transcendental singer of Antony and the Johnsons.
In 1959, Tradition Records put out An Evening with John Jacob Niles, a collection of folk songs performed, inhabited, stretched to their frightening limits by the so-called Dean of American Balladeers. It was Niles’ second record on the label. Fifty years later, Antony and the Johnsons have just released their second album on the Secretly Canadian imprint, the stunning and stirring The Crying Light.
If you’re concerned with concretes like era and instrumentation, you’ll find little tying these two albums together. But after one listen to both singers, with their unnerving tremolos and haunting high notes, the bond is undeniable.
Niles was a dulcimer-toting Kentucky-bred folk musician, albeit a notably worldly one. Antony, meanwhile, is a British bandleader with an expert group of musicians who provide a bright, floating landscape for his elegiac vocals. Still, the two artists’ ultimate effects are similar.
Those eager to parse and parcel have done their best to fit Antony’s music into categories, often calling it baroque pop or folk. It’s neither, of course, but the roots of such brandings are apparent. The Johnsons, full of violins and cellos and woodwinds and finger-plucked acoustic guitar, sound nothing like a rock band and everything like a mini pit orchestra backing some arty off-Broadway musical. The baroque tag grows out of this. The folk categorization comes from the music’s soft, acoustic bent and the fact that it all revolves around Antony’s storytelling (to use such a term liberally). After all, it is more common in today’s alt-pop world for lyrics to play second fiddle to the music’s overall aesthetic; most reviewers, unfortunately, give only cursory attention to the words when discussing new music. Antony and the Johnsons make this an impossibility.
Antony’s poetry would be beautiful with or without his emotive vibrato (one that’s so aggressive it often borders on melisma). Some of the songs on “The Crying Light” have a puzzling, shrouded quality that can liberate and empower the listener. On “Kiss my Name,” for instance, Antony weeps, “And my tears have turned to snow / I’m only a child / Born upon a grave / Dancing through the stations / Calling out my name.” In other instances, his songs’ understatement and brevity render them all the more revealing. On the title track, Antony sings, “Inside myself / The secret grows / My own shelter / Agony goes / Crying light, the crying light / I was born to adore you.”
Niles was never opaque, but the folk songs he interprets and the way he presents them can be as eerie and obsessively fatalist as Antony’s work. For instance, “The Black Dress” is a tale of a “forlorn” and “forsaken” young bride that Niles, with the force of his voice, puts into a frightening, nocturnal fantasy world. And the wistfulness of his “The Turtle Dove” feels like a clear predecessor to Antony’s songs of lacking. But Antony goes further—he does not simply sing about past tragedies or loss in the traditional sense; his forborne malaise seems to reach into the future, it feels as if it could continue forever.
A compelling and especially poignant side of Niles comes out when he sings his most famous original songs, such as “Go ‘Way from my Window” (yes, that’s what Dylan was referring to) and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Unfortunately, you will have to look deeper into his largely inaccessible catalog to find these—the easiest way to find them is on another Tradition Records LP, “I Wonder as I Wander” (1958).
But on all his records, Niles indicates the breadth of his influences, and this is another quality he shares with Antony. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Niles is clearly as indebted to country blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White, who went far beyond singing, making their mouths into interpretive instruments, natural sound-making machines. Antony and his band, meanwhile, take quite a few pages out of the book of soul. It's obvious in some of their most gratifying harmonic structures and turnarounds. Whatever their influences, Antony and Niles haunt and transcend, entirely differently but with a similar potency.