Antony and the Johnsons

I Am a Bird Now

(Secretly Canadian; 2005)

By Scott Reid | 2 February 2005

A lot of people are going to hate Antony. It isn't hard to see why: the single-named Californian is an androgynous singer/songwriter with a heavy artistic slant, exclusively performing sweeping, mid-tempo piano ballads with a name and album title that both include cleverly used colloquialisms for "penis." It'd be ignorant to dismiss it as a mere gimmick, but this is less about the sincerity of Antony's music (which I promise I'll actually get to in a moment) than his outrageously divisive way of carrying a note. People are going to laugh at this like another waste-of-time American Idol audition joke, and his make-up isn't going to have much to do with it.

No, the "problem" here is that Antony is stuck in more than just the body of the wrong sex, and his so-called schtick goes far beyond the Hedwig-esque lyrical matter. Antony's bass-heavy falsetto and highly androgynous image (think somewhere between Boy George and a creative Japanese school-girl)
are straight out of glam, where his brand of gender ambiguity is so inset, it's an expected cliche. Bowie, Lou Reed, even Roxy Music -- all have traveled various paths in his aesthetic shoes long ago, but visuals can only tell half the story. Antony's music is instead restricted to an introverted lounge commoned by sado-masochists and transexuals, whose uniniated audience is far less likely to grasp what makes a record like I Am A Bird Now so fascinating than, say, if he was sporting a silver glitter suit and packed a beat. It isn't that his voice is weird at all, because it isn't -- but, in his sole parallel to Joanna Newsom, it is often left so bare by its accompaniment that the spotlight just amplifies every love-it-or-hate-it twist of his baritone.

Case in point: gorgeous opener "Hope There's Someone" is only lightly accompanied for its first half, guided by a simple chord progression that lets Antony quickly introduce his unmistakable falsetto, harmonizing with itself in a slightly Banhart-esque warble. It later cascades into a pounding finale, but the blueprint for Bird's successes are set in the album's first thirty seconds.

From here it wavers: "For Today I Am A Boy," easily one of the album's most memorable cuts, takes a light Streethawk foray into anthemic folk-glam (the closest he gets to Bowie); "Man is the Baby" stretches out one of his best vocal performances to date with long, sweeping instrumental passages and a string arrangement that sounds about an hour away from downing a bottle of pills; and "Bird Girl" is a nice enough closer, but its impact is worn by a fair amount of monotony and the odd Thought for Food out-take quality of the preceding "Free At Last," featuring the spoken word of Julia Yasuda (whose fascinating story you can read all about here). Contextually, it's as important a piece of Bird as "For Today" or "Fistfull of Love," but not nearly as compelling -- think "Fitter Happier" with a heart and a point, but equally devoid of a melody. Then there's the excellent "My Lady Story," which is about as close to a "slow jam" as we're likely to hear form Antony; it manages to come off as oddly sensual, even with its tale of amputated transformation. It gets pretty heavy, but the chorus harmonies should occupy those not wanting to pay too much attention.

And then we hit the clown-car of guests, from like-minded contemporaries (Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright) to iconic influences (Lou Reed, Boy George). One of Antony's admitted boyhood, uh, heroes, Boy George, appears first on the incredible "You Are My Sister;" after the somewhat lethargic "Man is the Baby," the immediacy of its mid-tempo pop fringes are more than welcome, and Boy George's performance is -- perhaps more surprising to me than it should be -- even more affecting than Antony's. And, unlike most other guests, he actually appears in the song for more than thirty seconds.

What album so deeply rooted in its protagonist's androgyny could be complete without Lou Reed? Fresh off the heels of...well, some piece of shit, I'm sure, Reed adds a minimal appeal to "Fistfull of Love," mostly because he doesn't actually do much: he speaks his way through a short introduction about another stoned revelation that Antony masterfully expands upon. After the fade out, Banhart weirds his way into the mix, but his barely enunciated low-fi retelling of the song's chorus is, again, kept to the intro's thirty-odd seconds. You've got to wonder why they bothered at all. Then there's the other extreme -- Rufus Wainwright takes over the brief "What Can I Do?" leaving Antony to subdued background work.

Though the title track from his Lake EP landed on Banhart's folk compilation last year, Golden Apples of the Sun , Antony is hardly playing into the kind of sound he'll undoubtedly be filed next to. His song on that compilation stuck out like a boisterously sore thumb, and here, it blossoms into a whole 'nother beast that will, if we're lucky, continue to develop as significantly next time around. For what it lacks in consistency, I Am A Bird Now gains in being, even at its most tedious of moments, an interesting and thematically compelling listen. His voice might be unavoidably the main focus here, but should never be thought of has his sole asset (or flaw, depending on how you feel about him). In fact, I'm sure if he could pull out an entire record as strong as "You Are My Sister," "Hope There's Someone" and "My Lady Story," most rolling their eyes this time around would be taking Antony as seriously as he continually deserves to be.