Album of the Week, March 17: I Am A Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons

AntonyLadyStoryAntony Hegarty was born in Chichester in the U.K. in 1971. His peripatetic family wandered to Amsterdam and settled near San Francisco by 1981. As he grew up, he was fascinated by diverse music — 80s New Wave artists (especially vocalists like Alison Moyet and Boy George), underground stars like Klaus Nomi and Divine, and soulful singers like Otis Redding. He moved to New York in 1990 and undertook a series of musical adventures with many different performers. He assembled the Johnsons initially as support for a project sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1996. They honed their craft and released their debut, Antony and the Johnsons, in 2000. The resulting buzz saw Antony working with many artists including Rufus Wainwright and Linda Thompson as he prepared for a second album. The final result was stunning.

Title I Am A Bird Now
Act Antony and the Johnsons
Label Secretly Canadian Release Date 2/1/2005
Producer Antony Hegarty
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  16
Tracks
  1. Hope There’s Someone
  2. My Lady Story
  3. For Today I Am A Boy
  4. Man Is the Baby
  5. You Are My Sister
  6. What Can I Do?
  7. Fistfull of Love
  8. Spiralling
  9. Free At Last
  10. Bird Gerhl

Hegarty is an imposing conundrum. Standing 6’4″ and singing in a high, clear voice that is almost unearthly, the openly transgender performer makes the most of his enigma. He is an accomplished pianist and frequently cites the unique keyboard and voice work of Nina Simone as a primary influence. Besides his usual stalwarts in the Johsnons, he assembled a stunning array of guests for I Am A Bird Now. The album focuses on themes of change and identity, using the bird as a frequent metaphor.

The album starts of as strong as any disc out there. Hope There’s Someone is a plea and a declaration at once, merging Antony’s angelic voice with some amazing piano work. Starting this look at a life’s potential journey at the end and bursting with optimism, it’s a secular hymn of unparalleled grace. The song is particularly powerful given Antony’s choice for the album cover. It’s a copy of Peter Hujar’s “Candy On Her Deathbed,” a stark black and white photo of Warhol superstar Candy Darling (famous for her name-check in Lou Reed’s Walk On the Wild Side) literally on her deathbed. The combination of this image of one of the first transgender stars with Antony’s singing is quite poignant.

The next trio of songs explore issues of gender, identity, and power. My Lady Story is a contemporary look at someone claiming their gender regardless of what was assigned at birth. For Today I Am A Boy is a wistful wish by a child hoping for a day when she can claim her true identity. Both are beautifully sung and framed with lovely music, taking their specific topic to a level of universal power. This is further elevated by Man Is the Baby with its powerful chorus, “Forgive me, let live me.” It is a plea for understanding and a declaration of independence all at once.

As a youth, Antony found solace in the rising star of Boy George, enjoying both his voice and his androgyny. As the first guest star, George provides duet vocals on You Are My Sister, a lovely song of solidarity. His voice is worn but recongnizable (think late Sarah Vaughan) and plays beautifully with Antony’s . The grace of the music and the performance takes what could be a throwaway star turn into an empowering moment. The next guest star takes a generational leap, as out gay pop-cabaret genius Rufus Wainwright joins the cast. Antony sang on his album Want Two and the pair have a great chemistry. What Can I Do? is a haunting piece, relying on Wainwright’s vocals and Antony’s piano. Given the use of the bird as a symbol of hope and change, the pondering of its ultimate fate at the album’s midpoint creates both distress and possibility.

The spectre of Warhol returns with a visit from Lou Reed on Fistfull of Love. He provides a spoken intro and a great guitar figure on an off-kilter piece about a dysfunctional relationship. Alt-everything performer and artist Devendra Banhart provides a nice intro to Spiralling. It’s one of the most aptly named songs on the album, with the music and the lyric flowing in a powerful circle as Antony regains his power after the setbacks of the last two tracks. The vocal coda of “Hail, brave rogue” is perfect.

Julie Yasuda provides the last guest turn in the brief, odd Free At Last, performing “Morse code” and speak-chanting a poem of independence. It’s a jarring change in vocal and took me the longest to appreciate, but it fits nicely in the overall flow. Things wrap up with Bird Gurl, in which the singer embraces a complex identity and recaptures the powerful determination of the opening sequence. It’s a beautiful, strong ending to a stunning album.

The disc was a big success for an independent release. It won the coveted Mercury prize in 2006, prompting Antony to generously observe,

It’s kind of like a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon – which one do you like better?

an apt description of the competition and the diverse themes of his own work.

FURTHER LISTENING: Any time Antony lends his vocals to a project it’s worth a listen. His contributions to the loving Leonard Cohen tribute concert I’m Your Man are particularly wonderful. The Johnsons have only released five albums. All have something lovely to offer but none are as consistent and powerful as I Am A Bird Now. The live disc Cut the World is a nice overview of their work and shows off Antony’s live vocals and piano quite well.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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