Every now and then, a piece of music will become indelibly linked to a specific time or place in our lives. The song that was playing when you first met. The album that got you through your breakup. The track that always seems to be playing on the jukebox of your favorite bar. The soundtrack to one long, golden summer. The tape your parents played in the car when you were a kid. "Songs are like tattoos," sings Joni Mitchell on "Blue," a lyric that's permanently inked somewhere on my soul. And it has plenty of company.
A few years ago, I went through a rough patch in my life that I only truly recognized when I started to get out of it. There was no sudden trauma, no terrible illness or accident, no single event that marked the beginning or even the end. Just a low period of my life I'm happy is in the past now. But somewhere in the middle of it, I came to rely on one album in particular to help keep me going: I Am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons.
It's hard to describe Antony Hegarty's singing voice to people who have never heard him. Try to imagine a choirboy singing with the soulful depth of Nina Simone. It is strange and unique, like the sound of salted caramel ice cream. I loved it from the first moment I heard it, and it became a comforting companion to me. No matter how low I felt, hearing him sing, "I hope there's someone to take care of me," at the start of that album made me feel as if, even here, at the bottom of the well, I wasn't alone. And music is like that. An album might sell millions of copies, but it can still feel like it's speaking only to you. It was as if Antony himself was helping me get through my dip, even though I now know the same album has helped countless other people too.
After my life turned a corner for the better, I began to find the album painful to listen to. It had become an integral part of that difficult time, entwined with every emotion I was feeling back then. It was essentially ruined for me, and I began to fear that I had lost not just that one record but Hegarty's voice too. Would I ever be able to hear it the same way again? So it was with some trepidation that I greeted word of a new Antony and the Johnsons album and tour.
Thankfully, The Crying Light is a delight. "No one can stop you now," he sings at the start of this album's opening song, "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground," and for me it is the sound of a page turning, a new chapter beginning. The sorrow and heartbreak are still there, but now, once again, I can hear the positives in his music too. The delicate beauty and grace of "Another World" and "Dust and Water." The soaring, surreal musical flights of fancy on "Epilepsy is Dancing" and "Everglade." The self-assuredness of "Kiss My Name" and "Aeon." Indeed, there seems to be a confidence here that has replaced some of the darker doubts and fears of older tracks such as "Hope There's Someone." But that may also just be me.
And, if this new album has begun to renew my relationship with Antony and the Johnsons, then seeing them play San Francisco this month should help even more. Live, the emotional power of Hegarty's bittersweet voice only increases. But he is also a playful presence on stage, never letting the drama of the music weigh too heavily, injecting a little levity into proceedings now and then lest we forget ourselves and let the sadness drag us under.