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Antony and the Johnsons: Pop, but not as you know it

The bewitching, genre-defying singer returns with a new green message

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In his cultural history England Is Mine, Michael Bracewell traces the development of the English outsider as an archetype in 20th-century pop. He sets out a lineage of alienated, sexually ambiguous young men, from David Bowie to Morrissey to The Cure's Robert Smith, whose desire to transcend their drab suburban surroundings gave pop such seductive power in the postwar decades.

At first glance Antony Hegarty seems to fit neatly into this role, but in fact he has broader horizons. Born in Britain and having spent much of his life in the US, Hegarty emerged from the New York performance art scene at the end of the 1990s. His second album, I Am a Bird Now (2005), won the Mercury Music Prize. Audiences were bewitched by his remarkable voice, a soulful moan that sounds neither male nor female. At times it bears the emotional rawness of female jazz greats like Nina Simone or Billie Holliday; at others the fragile cadences of the 1980s musician Arthur Russell. No less original is Hegarty's music, which sits at the intersection of pop, classical and avant-garde genres.

On his follow-up album, The Crying Light, Hegarty has abandoned the cabaret atmosphere of I Am a Bird Now for a sparse, yet ambitious project, which focuses on the singer's preoccupation with climate change. "I'm interested in the inner garden," Hegarty told a recent interviewer. "But I think the next step is, how does this relate to the wider world?"

If, like me, you think one Bono in pop music is one too many, then don't fret. Hegarty takes his theme and spins it into something subtle and unique. It's clearest on the track "Another World", which opens with Hegarty mournfully singing "I need another place/Will there be peace?". He then lists all the things he's going to miss - sea, snow, trees, "things that grow". So far, so earnest, but as the list moves away from tangible objects ("Going to miss the wind/Been kissing me so long"), you realise that Hegarty is not suggesting an alternative: he's singing about death, in fact. Given the album's gospel-tinged sound, you half expect a religious messageto kick in. But there is no suggestion of an afterlife here - this world is all we have.

It's not so much a political statement as a materialist view of existence. The references to nature that permeate The Crying Light - the maternal images of "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground", the blessed-out finale to "Daylight and the Sun" - are a suggestion that any redemption will come from the physical world around us.

The songs on this album are beautifully constructed. Centred around understated piano and his multitracked voice - with orchestral arrangements by the composer Nico Muhly, among others - fantastical landscapes of sound rise and fall away so casually that you could almost miss them. On "One Dove", raindrop-like piano and creeping guitar notes are overtaken by a jazzy, spiralling horn melody, before the track settles into a gently atonal bed of strings. "Dust and Water" casts a vocal line over a low drone, reminiscent of a gospel chorus, while the album's finale, "Everglade", is lushly orchestrated. Only the rock-driven "Kiss My Name" sits awkwardly in the mix, but it's a minor blip.

Running at just under 40 minutes, this is an album of fleeting visions that get deeper and more intense with every listen. (Given the eco subject matter, a fan of bad puns might call it a "grower".) But Hegarty's talent is to combine avant-garde musical ideas and complex themes with a common touch - nowhere more so than on "Aeon", which could almost have been written by middle-of-the-road titans REM. A passionate address to a lover - the mystical-sounding title makes you wonder at first if it's supposed to be metaphorical - the intensity builds to a shouted climax ("hold that man I love so much"), and then drifts off into the ether.

The song's emotional power comes from its lyrics, which flit between the symbolic and the particular. Something similar is true of the album as a whole: while pop music has long been the soundtrack to love affairs, these are songs you can fall in love with.

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?