Antony and the Johnsons is primarily a vehicle for the work of Antony Hegarty, an androgynous singer-songwriter originally from England but now based in New York City. I am a bird now was their second album of delightfully twisted baroque chamber music, following their self-titled album from 2000.
I am a bird now is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, and one of the few albums which I have heard that deserves to be treated as a contemporary work of art. It's an album to be torn apart, analysed and re-constructed again; I am hopeful that one day art scholars will be studying it as part of their curriculum.
Like many pieces of contemporary art, this album is not for everyone. You will probably decide within the first few seconds of the opening track whether it is for you. Antony's unique vibrato vocals are not for everyone, and if you are able to develop an appreciation for them then you are already halfway there to developing a taste for this remarkable record. If you are familiar with any of the work of jazz legend Nina Simone, you will definitely hear parallels between her vocals and Antony's.
The music is very understated, piano-based cabaret music; as wonderfully lush and produced as it is, Antony's lyrics and delivery are the real star of the show. Lyrically heartbreaking, the album covers a gamut of emotions from fear of death (Hope there's someone), being trapped in the wrong body (For today I'm a boy) and emotional companionship (You are my sister).
There are a plethora of guest stars: Boy George (You are my sister), Rufus Wainwright (What can I do?), Lou Reed (Fistful of love) and Devendra Banhart (Spiralling). While one can cynically look at guest spots as cross-over opportunities, here their performances fit in seamlessly with the vision and lyrical themes of the album (in particular Boy George).
Whilst the first half of the album spans many intertwining and depressing lyrical themes, the second half (beginning with the Rufus Wainwright vocal performance What can I do?) is more hopeful. The punchy Fistful of love (the most upbeat and optimistic song on the album) is punctuated by saxophone and an upbeat rhythm section, adding some much needed relief to compensate for the darkness of the other songs.
By the time the album concludes with the brief interlude Free at last and euphoric Bird gerhl, you know that Antony has reached a content state of redemption and enlightenment. We don't know whether he has become completely comfortable in his own skin, or whether it's just a façade. We are just glad that he exposed his soul to us and allowed us to accompany him on this emotional journey.