Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now
I still remember the first time I heard the sound of Antony Hegarty’s voice. “You have to hear this”, a friend had said, and he was right. Much like departed greats Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley, the English-born New Yorker can make time appear to stand still simply by opening his mouth.
Right from the first note on hypnotic album-opener ‘Hope There’s Someone’, the listener is transported to another, darker place. Antony’s is a world of almost unbearable yearning; on songs such as ‘My Lady Story’ and ‘Spiralling’, he broaches, in intoxicating detail, the weighty subject of transgenderism. Against a sparse, piano-and-strings backing, the lines between gender states become blurred, Antony expressing his longing to break free from his male form and ‘grow up’ into a woman: the bruised lament on ‘Man Is The Baby’ (“Forgive me, let live me, set my spirit free…”), as Antony’s vocals crash and soar, is simply heartbreaking. ‘Fistfull of love’, meanwhile, is a Marc Almond-inspired paean to an abusive lover that will leave a lump in even the most hardened of throats.
And yet, I Am A Bird Now is not as devastatingly bleak as all of this sounds. Melancholic? Yes. Despairing? Not quite. Even in the depths of sorrow and confusion, Antony maintains a child-like sense of hope, a hope that rides on the crest of his rolling tenor.
As any Mercury Prize judge will tell you, this is a record that stood out from the rest of the class of ’05. Indeed, it’s the kind of album that it’s possible to disappear inside of for weeks on end. Just be sure to tell a friend.
An embarrassment of guests – from mentor Lou Reed to kindred spirits Devendra Banhart and Rufus Wainwright – serves to reinforce the notion that I Am A Bird Now marked the emergence of a rare talent. It also marked one of the few occasions when a Mercury Prize winner caused little to no disagreement. Tragic, brave and featuring a truly awe-inspiring vocal display, this might just be the best album ever made by an overweight, half-Irish transvestite. (Paul Harrington)