“I honestly believe that unless we move into feminine systems of governance, we don’t have a chance on this planet.”
The two quotes above are from a track called “Future Feminism”, the second track on Antony and the Johnsons’ new live album Cut the World. One would think that putting a 7.5-minute spoken-word monologue — especially one that spends large amounts of time on politics and religion — onto a live album as its second track would be a risk, but one also gets the sense that risk is something that Antony embraces. A musical venture without risk is a musical venture best skipped, after all.
In the context of Cut the World, however, “Future Feminism” hardly seems like much of a risk at all.
The album actually opens with a studio track, a new song that happens to be the title track. Its orchestral arrangement puts it well within the context of the rest of the album, and its words present it as something of a prologue. There is a restraint here, sorrow and reflection masking rage that may or may not ever see the light of day. “Future Feminism”, then, as the first actual live track, lays out the perspective from which that restraint is borne. As a transgender environmentalist and feminist, Antony is displaced in the modern world; Antony’s simple recounting of The Pope’s statement that the marriage of homosexuals presents a greater threat to the world than climate change is horrifying, even as Antony laughs at its absurdity. The laughter, of course, is a cover for the wounds and scars that have come with years of withstanding such abusive, hateful language.
What comes after “Future Feminism” is Antony’s catalogue recontextualized. There are no more new songs, but there are plenty of old songs given new life by both the setting established by Antony’s seven-and-a-half-minute talk and by underrated composer Nico Muhly’s rich orchestration.
First, Antony gives us a treatise on the nature of love. “Cripple and the Starfish” intertwines deep, unconditional love with unimaginable pain, while “You Are My Sister” is one of the purest and most innocent declarations of love Antony has ever written (and as much as I love Boy George’s contribution to the original, it’s great to have a version without him). Eventually “Swanlights” appears, offering an Antony in love with the idea of life, with being alive, with the ability to experience the subtle, shining lights that pierce the night. It’s a lovely little triptych, made moreso by Muhly’s deft touch. This is as palatable to the general populace as Antony is ever likely to be, and yet none of it feels like compromise.
Eventually, Antony’s focus expands to include our interactions with the world around us, and the instrumentation behind him only impresses more. It’s hard to believe that the song-length shift from a creepy tritone backing drone to a triumphant fifth was done by actual humans in “Another World”. The restraint offered by no less than 20 seconds of silence in “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” is excruciating in its power. Closer “Twilight” is at turns reflective and triumphant, and the build that Muhly has arranged is perfect in both its dynamic and instrumental composition. Sure, Antony wrote these songs, but Muhly’s work is consistently brilliant and should not go ignored.
Vulnerable as he comes off for much of the performance, Antony is also at his most crowd-pleasing, and least difficult. His wails are never excessive; his voice stays consistently beautiful and emotional throughout. The experimental touches that pepper his studio releases are largely missing, and maybe that’s for the best — Cut the World is a simple plea, for forgiveness, for understanding, for acceptance and love. By retaining the purity of his own instrument, he sits perfectly alongside the orchestra’s. As a result, Cut the World transcends the often diminishing “live album” label, becoming its own beast, a wonderful album that no Antony fan will feel complete without.