Rock 'n' roll or linguistics? It's hard to say where Antony and the Johnsons' larger contribution lies. Mastermind Antony Hegarty's gift to music is his songbook, which is the most emotionally naked in indie rock. But perhaps more impressive is how his frail chamber ballads have restored that broken-down carriage of a word, “precious,” to its original meaning. He proves that there's more to this adjective than porcelain figurines and smarmy greeting cards.
Sticking to this strength, Hegarty's songs have never been as gloriously precious as they are on The Crying Light. But unlike this set's full-length predecessor — the 2005 Mercury Prize–winning I Am a Bird Now (with Warhol superstar Candy Darling on the cover) — new songs like “Epilepsy Is Dancing” and “Another World” engage as much as they absorb the listener. So, while opener “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground” begins with Hegarty's familiar weeping falsetto, it isn't long before his tears find solace in the string and woodwinds that define the album's sound. He even takes a stab at jaunty pop on “Kiss My Name,” where uncharacteristically assertive percussion does battle with opaque lyrics (“Momma in the afterglow/When the grass is green, we've grown”). It's an unlikely mix, but in the last analysis, Hegarty's new bag is as sullen as his old. His newly honed ability to connect to us without breaking our hearts, however, shows real growth in a major artist who has just hit his stride.