You may expect a record that features a host of star-turns to betray a distracting timorousness. You would be perfectly within your rights to imagine the record to be a piecemeal affair, burdened by ill-conceived collaboration and ill-focused genre skipping. I Am A Bird Now, a collection of songs, of hymns even, is a record that will banish these preconceptions, and a whole lot more besides.
Though the presence of Boy George, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and the ubiquitous Devendra Banhart would normally overshadow that of other mere mortals, make no mistake, I Am A Bird Now is down solely to the breathtaking performances of Antony himself and the simpatico sensibilities of the Johnsons.
But first, a little introduction may be necessary. Though principally ‘a group’, it is Antony himself that is principally responsible for these torch-like meditations on hope, loss and identity. Though actually hailing from deepest Sussex in Merry Olde, Antony eventually made his way to New York, attracted by the cabaret circuit and the city’s gay community.
Antony swiftly came to the attention of the city’s art crowd. After hearing earlier song Cripple And The Starfish, Lou Reed recruited Antony to tour with him on his shows to promote his album The Raven. Like Reed’s ex-partner, known only as ‘Rachel’, Antony’s gender was never clear. The ambiguity became muddier when Reed gave Antony lead vocal on, what else, but Candy Says. Candy Says was of course inspired by Andy Warhol acolyte and transsexual Candy Darling, and it is her image that adorns the cover of I Am A Bird Now.
Like many of the greatest singers, Antony inspires empathy and understanding. It is a rare artist indeed that can transport the listener to an entirely different environment of feeling. Songs such as My Lady Story and For Today I Am A Bouy tell of the deepest sorrows and create something exceeding elegance that only the coldest of hearts could fail to be moved by.
At its best, I Am A Bird Now draws favourable comparisons with that most hallowed of rock crit tablets, Astral Weeks. Van Morrison‘s examination of the human condition with all its conflicting urges and terrifying brevity, finds a contemporary echo in the naked emotional surrender of Hope There’s Someone and, most gloriously, Fistful Of Love. So responsive are the assembled Johnsons to Antony’s mastery of song that they too, as Lester Bangs once said of the Astral Weeks musicians, could be “dwelling in each other’s souls”.
The very craft of I Am A Bird Now is itself astonishing. Every nuance of every note has its place, little left to chance. Yet Antony’s oddly-affecting vibrato, pitched somewhere between Nina Simone and the Bryan Ferry of A Song For Europe, achieves the profoundest spontaneity. Once heard, never forgotten.
Antony transforms the half-lit world of cabaret to a world stage. Despite appearances to the contrary, there are no sops to kitsch and campery. Although the tone is predominantly mournful and tormented, Antony’s invoking of the redemptive forces of Gospel and Atlantic R&B alleviates stagy gloom. Fistful Of Love even succeeds in liberating the legacy of the Muscle Shoals players from the thousands of Commitments bores plaguing a pub near you.
Antony and the Johnsons will be the unlikeliest, but the most welcome of successes in 2005 and beyond.