When Antony Hegarty stepped onstage at London’s Barbican in early November 2006 to perform Turning, the singer was nearing the height of his popular power. Though it had been out for more than 18 months, his second album, I Am a Bird Now, remained both perplexing and compelling. Hegarty had captured seldom-told stories of gender confusion and romantic impermanence in 10 songs that seemed to breathe grace instead of air. He’d been an unknown upstart signed to the label of fringe hero and early booster David Tibet when he issued his debut just five years earlier. But for Bird, Hegarty had assembled a cast of apropos icons—not only his refined and intricate Johnsons, but also Lou Reed and Boy George, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart, four singers who’d also flirted with liminal identities. Rather controversially, those tunes had even taken Britain’s top music prize, the Mercury, only a year ahead of the two-night Barbican stand, besting Coldplay, M.I.A. and the nationalistically sore losers of Kaiser Chiefs. The Guardian called him a “former choirboy turned cross-dresser.” He was, suddenly and unexpectedly, something of a star.
Turning, Hegarty’s touring multimedia collaboration with the New York video artist Charles Atlas, is the work of someone who has been given a sudden, conspicuous platform. As Antony and his band worked through songs from his first three albums and an assortment of shorter sets, a dozen transsexual, transgender, or simply androgynous women—”beauties,” Antony has long called them—turned slowly with the help of an elevated, mechanized circle. Many of these characters reappear throughout Hegarty’s career. Dr. Julia Yasuda speaks and plays Morse code during Bird interlude “Free at Last”; longtime collaborator Johanna Constantine has appeared in Antony’s album artwork and is the striking star of his “Epilepsy is Dancing” video.
Positioned just to the side of the stage, Atlas funneled live video of their bodies and faces through a web of effects and projected it behind the ensemble. It is an audacious and illustrative concept, a synesthetic design that uses humans to portray Hegarty’s songs about dignity and survival, to boost the hypothetical into the empirical. (Atlas’ video for “You Are My Sister” is a simulacrum of the show.) Though conceived and premiered for the Whitney Biennial in April 2004, this full international tour was the byproduct of Hegarty’s post-Mercury cachet. Suddenly, he had the ability to do more than play shows in London, Rome, Braga, Paris, and Madrid. He could stage them, too. Captured throughout the European run and issued almost exactly eight years later, this new CD-and-DVD package finally opens those shows up for a wider audience.
You might smirk at the thought of another live Antony album, since this is the third of his career and second since the release of his most recent studio LP, 2010’s Swanlights. (It’s arguably the third since then, too, as he issued an onstage collaboration with Italian singer Franco Battiato last year.) But this is, to date, his quintessential live release, capturing a set that toggles carefully between the band’s luxurious sounds and his urgent songs. The Johnsons are in their most measured and exquisite phase, giving new life to cuts familiar from Hegarty’s catalog. They add tension (and a touch of “Crazy in Love”?) to the start of “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” before indulging a perfectly pregnant pause that leads to the song’s big reveal. And three years before the number’s release, they lean hard into “Kiss My Name”, Parker Kindred’s drums dancing with delight alongside Rob Moose’s electric lead. The auspiciousness of the occasion plays in Hegarty’s voice as complete confidence. He masters these takes. His voice dips and dives with the strings of “Bird Gerhl”, finding the soul gusto he can sometimes miss in the studio. And as he drives into the wordless shouts at the climax of “Hope There’s Someone”, you feel his call for solidarity on an instinctual level. This isn’t delicate subject or even delicate material, he seems to say; it’s real life.
The accompanying film, however, tries to do too much, in turn missing the simple, genius focus of the conceit. Unequal parts concert footage, interviews between the beauties and Antony, backstage logistical shots and motivational speeches from the singer himself, Turning never explores an acute angle. The performances are beautiful, with the figures and distortions of the women transforming songs like “Rhythm of Your Love” and “Daylight and the Sun” into beautiful, ad hoc short films. Many of these numbers come cut with conversations with the models, talking variably about issues with parents, childhood wishes for a penis, struggles with discrimination, and moments where they discovered self-worth in their particular identity. There are stunning moments, as when Joey Gabriel discusses communities of trans vagrants—”a transgender jigsaw puzzle,” she says—in Boston while the band rises high through “Hope There’s Someone”.
But unless you’re familiar with Antony’s orbit or you’re willing to do some independent study about who these people are, you’re left feeling as though you know a little about a lot of vaguely connected performers. They’re rarely called by name, and you have to work to keep them separate between scenes. Antony speaks no more than the beauties themselves, but because of each woman’s cursory survey, he emerges as the film’s anchor, offstage as on. For a piece that aims to celebrate the value in diversity and self-worth, such an anonymous effect actually negates the point.
Not long before Antony and Atlas took Turning to Europe, the filmmaker interviewed the singer for a conversation in BOMB Magazine. They talked about Catholic school and singing, drums and diaries. They also talked about Turning and their impressions of the work’s value. “What it whittled down to for me in the end was tableaux,” Antony said. “Staring at something that I thought was beautiful and magical, something transcendental, which for me is usually moving across androgyny toward the feminine.”
Watching and listening to Turning nearly a decade later, tableaux feels too specific and stationary, as though the work were only a to-scale model of the difficulty and progress of LGBTQ rights that both Antony and Atlas had witnessed in long lives as New Yorkers. Still, despite the film’s issues, and despite the relative slow motion of Antony’s current output, this concept feels as revelatory and salient now as it did then. Even if Atlas’ effects feel dated less than a decade later, this is no period piece. At a time when one court says yes or at least “no comment” to gay marriage only for another to say no, and when women can’t criticize a multi-billion dollar industry without receiving death threats, the idea beneath Turning remains one of vital empowerment. And whether he’s singing about polar bears or sexual orientation, that’s long served as Antony’s most implicit message. Now, it spins forever.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uYvZTx