Despite the best of intentions, it's hard to write a good song about the environment. It's an important issue that people willfully ignore, and plenty of artists mean well, but the vast majority of anthems that may as well be called "You Need To Be Concerned About Global Warming" barely work as op-ed pieces, let alone music.
Antony Hegarty is special for many, many different reasons. If we were to make a list of "Unique Things About Antony," a "Tendency To Write Deeply Moving Songs About Earth's Decay" would really only have been point six or seven until last night. That's when Antony took it to the next level at Radio City Music Hall, making his concerns about what we are doing to the planet the primary crux of his ambitious Swanlights extravaganza.
Commissioned by the Museum Of Modern Art, Antony was backed by a 60-piece orchestra, whom he led through a carefully selected, symphonic tour of his back catalog. He wore a plain, loosely-fitting white robe that both mirrored the spiritual themes of his music and looked good when lasers and colored lights were reflected off of it. (Said lasers and light show were provided by renowned light artist Chris Levine and designer Paul Normandale.)
As the music ebbed and flowed , green and red lights would bounce of Antony, the white walls behind him and the geometric shape floating in the air (that I don't really know how to describe. It sort of looked like a MOMA version of a Tetris game). The stage would look purple during a contemplative moment, orange during an anguished song and was stark, Kubrickian white during the cathartic end.
Antony mainly focused on his two most recent releases, 2009's The Crying Light and the 2010 EP Swanlights, throwing in a handful of curve balls like "I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy" and his cover of "Crazy In Love." (There's an undeniable hilarity in the mental image of Nico Muhly, the event's arranger, and the rest of the orchestra sitting down to figure out how to play a Beyonce song.) These songs drew connections between the gay rights movement, misogyny and environmental neglect. To Antony, they're all permutations of the same callous ignorance, and they can only be defeated by the power of raw, overflowing compassion.
What makes Antony's environmental pleas work is that he infuses them with the same heart-breaking emotion he would use to sing about a dying friend or absent lover; perhaps they're all the same thing to him. He personalized his concern for the earth in a unique way, and his set was filled with lines that alternated between despair for his home ("I'm gonna miss the sea, gonna miss the snow/I'm gonna miss the bees, miss the things that grow") and hope that it's not too late ("grow back like a starfish.")
Heady stuff, to be sure, and quite moving when delivered as well as Antony did last night. Gliding above the orchestra, his pure, child-like voice handled even the most ornate of arrangements. As gentle as he can be he never sounded in danger of being overwhelmed. Antony made it look easy, but apparently it wasn't. As soon as the show was over, he exclaimed "i'm glad that's (expletive) over," and proceeded to laugh about how ambitious the past hour was before graciously thanking everyone in involved.