Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now

Antony and the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
Secretly Canadian

Shot in opulent black and white, the cover of Antony and the Johnsons' second release shows Warholian transgender superstar Candy Darling lying sick on her bed, just days before her obituary was written. At a glance, the photo captures a vague transitory state, not just between genders, but between life and death. In such an instant, the portrait encapsulates the motifs of change that course through the New York performance-artist-turned-cabaret-crooner's album.

The first notes to rise out of Antony's throat will perplex initiates. A high, reedy falsetto that turns into a robust and soulful tenor, his voice is akin to that of Little Jimmy Scott, or even Nina Simone, two singers who are often mistaken for the other sex. Antony's androgynous timbre quivers constantly, less in the classical sense of vibrato than in the style of someone near the edge of a nervous breakdown, liable to shake apart at the next word. For the album's opener, "Hope There's Someone," he flutters tremulously around the lonesome piano, fearful of "the middle place between life and nowhere." As the piano's pounded overtones form clouds, his deliberations on death turn wordless, weightless, ascending skyward for a brief moment before returning to cower on terra firma.

Throughout this lush, majestic album, the Ovid-esque allusions to avian freedom and metamorphosis play themselves out in song. Men revert back to boyhood, boys change into girls, girls molt into birds, and Antony's many fans entwine their voices with his own. Rufus Wainwright plaintively laments aloud, "What Can I Do?" Devendra Banhart warbles on "Spiralling" before Antony's voice does what the title suggests. Boy George and Antony sound as if they were separated at birth as they pass torchy lines betwixt them on "You Are My Sister." Open admirer Lou Reed gives a Back to Mono-logue reading on "Fistful of Love" before picking up a guitar to punch feedback through horn charts lifted from Van Morrison. And somewhere in Chinatown, an anonymous character recites a poem praising God (or perhaps Gwah), exalting that he is free at last. The means of transcendence cannot be gleaned from the words, but they may be hidden in closer "Bird Guhl." Here, Antony's voice and heroine rise like Lady Lazarus, beyond the reach of the piano's last notes toward something beautiful and indescribable.

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