Delirium in the temple
‘I Am a Bird Now’ by Antony and the Johnsons
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I first heard this record coming in from the airport in Milan. A taxi ride, ancient four-storey buildings, thrusting billboards, the beautiful people gorgeously dressed; and then a motorbike accident on a corner, a body beside an ambulance stiff on the ground. Life and death. I was listening to the right record.
I Am a Bird Now, the second album by Antony and the Johnsons, is unique. Ten songs moving only fleetingly above the stroll of mid-tempo. All are piano-based, built on blocks of gospel, soul and ballad. The songs are serious, demanding, hooked on death, redemption, love, devotion and the search for what one actually is – which, in this case, is man or woman, child or bird. The seriousness of the intent, so faraway from most rock and pop these days, would itself steal only a small share of attention if it wasn’t for a host, my god an entire battlefield, of other qualities that lift this record way above the pack.
At the centre is a voice, a diamond from which all else shines. It is high in the mix, though the words are at times hard to make out. It is a voice to be listened to in temples, with large groups of people on rugs and chairs, exotic birds in cages, the sky a decadent shade of purple. That’s the voice, singing out unamplified through the pillars and into the night, for the pleasure of those in repose. It is a bell voice to warn of suffering, a grieving voice that has known heartache. It is a warm voice from ancient times, a truth-teller, honey-coated, with a vibrato trill that suggests Bryan Ferry at his absolute best on those great early Roxy Music ballads, and a command and authority belonging to Nina Simone.
But this is a man singing, and here lies the great game of this record. Transgender notions are everywhere. Staring out of the cover through mascaraed eyes is Candy Darling, former Andy Warhol star. The songs have names like “My Lady Story”, “For Today I Am a Boy”, “You Are My Sister” – a beautiful duet with Boy George – and “Bird Gurl”. It is a tilt of the hat to cabaret and camp, without sinking to their superficialities or stylistic traps.
For this is a lean record reared on indie sensibilities. A lot of thought has gone into the arrangements, working on the maxim that less is more. Drums are used sparsely to great effect. Gorgeous string arrangements come in to bury the heart but are restrained, never soaked and wet, as the songs would almost suggest. These are songs of tradition, strong songs that could bend and bow to a more old-school approach. And all this holding back and good taste leaves more room for the thing that chiefly drives this delirious record. Antony’s voice. It always comes back to that. What will throw people is where it comes from: man or woman?
Antony was born in England, raised in California and moved to New York at 19 – to be, he says, “where the beautiful people were”. Through the 1990s he existed in performance art, cabaret and the transvestite, transsexual, trans-everything under-world of New York. He formed the Johnsons, whose self-titled first record disappeared into the hands of cultdom. Then he sang with Lou Reed, on Reed’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired album The Raven, and the experience seemed to drag him out to the chances and charms of broader success. I Am a Bird Now is Antony’s breakout record. And, for once, the timing of an artist’s development and the second when the lamp of attention falls seem to have occurred at exactly the right moment.
The broad category of what is going on here is torch. But Antony is no diva – or if he is, he is a hard-working one. The album credits run “written and produced by Antony”. That is some achievement, because both lines of work are executed to top standard. The power and position of his voice, and the grand fizz the lyrics send off, may blind some people to the other accomplishments here. Antony has written ten great songs. Even better, he has sequenced them right. He sprinkles the big numbers – the first track “Hope There’s Someone” (opening line “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me, when I die”), “You Are My Sister” and the soul punch, after a fabulous Lou Reed spoken intro, of “Fistfull of Love” – with softer colours and smaller gems. He resists going for one knockout blow after another, instead telling a story that ebbs and flows, comes and goes. And all at a total running time of 35 minutes: a man/woman who knows when to leave the stage.
The guests are chosen on biographical lines and from contemporary souls. Lou Reed and Boy George, whose photograph transfixed the pre-teenage Antony for hour after hour, point to his past. Reed, the great chronicler of all New York transgressions of the past 40 years, puts in a lovely performance and it’s wonderful to see him in this company, not in some rock-legends-men-of-the-same-age fiasco but here with Antony, playing great guitar. Rufus Wainwright and nu-folk star Devendra Banhart each get a song. Both sound so much like Antony that I thought it was him on first listening. Guest vocalists are normally there to provide contrast, not to wrap around the featured vocalist’s own persona. More subversion.
This is a record utterly unpreoccupied with commercial success, confident that there is an audience out there for it, and for its themes of love’s obsessions, the body makeover and death, eloquently dealt with by a voice and musical tableau that does them justice. It is a singular record, establishing a mood in its opening seconds – of grief and heartache, of lives lived and not lived – that never breaks. It doesn’t get mawkish, only better. A spell is cast. An honour exists on this record.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.