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Antony & The Johnsons:: I am a bird now (Album Review)

There was a memorable description of Antony — the one-named wonder trading under the name Antony & The Johnsons — as having “the voice of a choirboy in the body of a rugby prop.” A little private-school for my tastes, but the descriptive does its job of showing the contrast between the big, bulky frame of the New York songwriter and the astonishing, octave-straddling voice that, incongruously, comes caroling from him. What the descriptive doesn’t do, though, is explore the sense of utter sadness that comes in this spiritual/physical juxtaposition; doesn’t extend to how such manifests, completely and utterly, in Antony’s music, and, especially, in his second album, I Am a Bird Now. Antony’s voice is a songbird’s warble, but it’s a caged bird, held prisoner behind the bars of the body, living in a human form that seems like a prison. It’s easy to talk of Antony’s tunes as being transgender torch songs — played with much dexterity and drama on a grand piano — but it’s another to look them in the eye, to actually read on the compact disc the child’s scrawl that says: “Dear Dr., I do not want to be a boy. I want to be a girl.” It’s easy to be seduced by his striking singing, but it’s hard to keep open ears when he sings of debasing the body that’s keeping him prisoner; “Fistful of Love” is a violent coda to his former record’s “Cripple and the Starfish,” an ode to “getting the shit kicked out of you,” with lyrics lustily recollecting feeling “your fist” and “the whip.” All the while, whilst singing this, he’s dreaming of growing up to be a beautiful woman, of escaping his cage, of taking wing, of soaring. It’s a lyrical line that Antony never strays from across an entirely thematic set. Even when he tries to head away from such, things have a way of turning full circle. “You Are My Sister” was initially written for his actual sister, but by the time he set out recording it as a duet with Boy George, Antony’s ode had seemed to take on entirely different meaning, this full circle reflecting a personal/artistic full circle, Boy having been the first outward representation and reflection back of himself for Antony as a boy, Boy who inspired the boy Antony to dream of being a singer. George is one of two heroes herein: Lou Reed turns up on “Fistful of Love,” too, and two of Antony’s peers, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart, are on hand to lend their own crooning to the disc. But, as whole, the record is hardly notable for its special guests; the beauty of Antony’s singing, the ferociousness of his delivery, the profundity of his songs, and the unflinching nature make the disc truly transcend such. Transcendence being an apt image for a record whose whole whole is dedicated to transformation and metamorphosis — its title, “I Am a Bird Now,” is a statement that can only come on conclusion, the destination point towards which all the record’s hopes and dreams must build; its closing track, “Bird Girl,” speaks of being born in such a moment. That moment marks the end of the album’s journey, a culmination when the songbird finally gets to fly, free as a bird, free at last. (by Anthony Carew)