When I first listened to Antony And The Johnsons’ third release I Am A Bird Now, I was unimpressed but somewhat intrigued. People are comparing his voice and raw emotion to Nina Simone’s, going on about how he has an otherworldly vibrato that will bring tears to your eyes (his voice reminds me more of Japan’s David Sylvian). He comes across as overly sentimental but somehow totally embraceable.
This adorable fragile cupie doll really means what he says. He’s The Flirtations (an extremely annoying 1980s gay American a cappella group) in a cooler Warholian package. Clay Aikens sings the same drippy shit.
But what makes Antony so damn special is that he’s willing to take that step of over-the-top emotional drama and pain and give it all an unbelievable sincere, complex spin. He’s examining gender, the longing to be loved, to be a girl – a sullen Orlando and a perplexed Pinocchio all rolled into one. If Whitney Houston would just step up to the plate and sing about the joys and anguish of her cocaine addiction or Michael Jackson sang about boylove and celebrity ignorance and loneliness, the world would surely be a better place. So here is Antony giving us a tender and straightforward rendition of his spiritual hippiness and gothic grandness – comforting tranny lullabies to which all humane humans can relate.
The album cover says it all. It’s photographer Peter Hujar’s famous 1974 black and white photo of Warhol superstar Candi Darling looking so beautiful and serene and ultra glamorous as she lay in her hospital bed, all delicate and willowy, waiting for her close up and the cancer to take her away. Antony once said, “Transsexuals are among the most highly evolved and beautiful creatures on the planet.”
On the inside of the CD booklet are the messy scribblings of a child’s letters (from a medical journal on hermaphrodism and sex reassignment). Dated Apr 20, 1966 and addressed to father and mother, they simply state repeatedly “I got to b a boy, I got to b a boy.” The booklet adds depth and focus to the album’s heart.
The album starts with “Hope There’s Someone” as Antony plays his piano and sings in a fluttery falsetto, “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me/ When I die/ When I go.” “For Today I Am A Boy” is a compelling song about the helplessness of being a child and knowing yourself so well, and hoping against all hope you will grow and be free of your burdens and be who you are truly meant to be. “One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman/ One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl/ But for today I am a child/ I am a boy.” It’s riveting.
When Antony was a child the fantastically girly Boy George was someone he held dear to his heart, the first person that gave him hope. Boy George was like him. So the song “You Are My Sister” is a simple touching duet featuring Miss O’Dowd (who sounds incredibly old, weak and shaky, almost unrecognizable) and Antony singing their devotion with not a trace of irony or camp. “You are my sister/ And I love you/ May all of your dreams come true.”
The album isn’t artsy fartsy crazy at all. It really has a simplistic meat and potatoes production, that is probably why its brilliance didn’t hit me until concentrated repeated listens. The strings are used sparingly as are the guests (and big supportive fans) including Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and new folky Devendra Banhart.
The album ends with a song of death and rebirth. “Bird Guhl” has a delicate piano that helps Antony’s soaring vocal proclamation reach to the heavens. “I am Bird Guhl/ And Bird Guhls go to heaven/ Bird Guhls can fly.”