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Antony and The Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now

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Artist: Antony and The Johnsons

Album: I Am A Bird Now

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Feb. 27, 2005

Much has been made of Antony’s penchant for blurring the lines of gender and identity. On “Hope There’s Someone,” I Am a Bird Now’s introduction, he sings, “Oh, I’m scared of the middle place between life and nowhere.” But there is far more to his art than aesthetic trappings. At its core, Antony’s work contains an honesty that obliterates the distance between performer and audience. Through his openness, Antony involves us directly, fusing vulnerability with a measure of bold assurance. Best of all, he actually manages to capture this collusion on record.

Spare piano and decorous strings are the instrumental cornerstones of I Am a Bird Now, elegantly supporting Antony’s gorgeous, tremulous voice. “You are My Sister,” – featuring the world-weary vocalizations of Boy George – is a silvery prayer for a missing soul mate. Framed by serene piano chords and mournful cello, Antony offers wistful reminiscences and fond hopes for a once-beloved companion. “You are my sister / We were born / So innocent and full of need,” he sings in a cordially tender tone. “There were times we were friends, and times I was so cruel.” George’s presence enhances the cut’s destitute nostalgia, bringing a sluggish desperation to an already sorrowful song. Together, the two voices are almost unbearably maudlin, but the sentiment expressed is pure.

Rufus Wainwright sings lead on the short but poignant “What Can I Do?,” with Antony providing only backup vocals and scrupulous piano playing. Despite its brief runtime, the song is a fine example of Antony’s ability to bare his heart through tender concession. “What can I do when the bird’s about to die / What can I do when she’s too weak to fly,” Wainwright asks plaintively. An A-list balladeer, he’s well-suited to the material, expertly voicing Antony’s delicate lament.

Lou Reed’s spoken word intro on “Fistful of Love” is short, sweet and refreshingly unpretentious, his terse prose matching the song’s ’70s chic nicely. Reed’s sloppy guitar playing and unpleasantly brittle tone threaten to sink the song at a couple of points, however. Thankfully, his geriatric skronk is pretty low in the mix. Blaring, glam-tinged horns usher in the tune's bombastic finale, as Antony begs for “a little bit of love” like a true soul crooner.

Devendra Banhart also turns up briefly; his Piaf-esque warble kicks off the riveting symmetry of “Spiraling.” Unlike Wainwright, his contribution seems somewhat superfluous, though – especially on repeat listens. Still, it’s tough to fault the songwriter for inviting his friends along; it’s this gregariousness that makes Antony more than just a voice of masochism, self-effacement and rejection. You get the impression that the artist is truly a giving soul, even if his gift is in the form of an emotionally wrenching, uncomfortably confessional record.

The sweetly tragic chords of closing track “Bird Gurl” provide a bed for Antony’s powerful declaration of transformation and transcendence; a perfect close to an affecting record. You’d simply have to be made of granite not to be moved.

While Antony & the Johnsons might not translate well with audiences accustomed to the smirking, post-ironic music cluttering the current indie scene, those willing to listen without pre-conceptions will be absorbed by Antony’s unguarded, rococo visions.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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