Thursday, August 26, 2010

Antony & the Johnsons: A Break From Bay Area Music

I know it's not Bay Area music, but this is one of my favorite albums of all time (if not my absolute favorite), and I want to share it with everyone. This album, by New York soul/jazz/chamber pop/unclassifiable group Antony & the Johnsons, was released in 2005. I discovered it four years after its release after reading an interview with Antony in Rolling Stone. It is one of the few albums I have ever rated 5 stars, and one of the few I believe truly deserves them.

I Am A Bird Now
* * * * *

It would be difficult for me to start this review without simply stating my opinion that I Am A Bird Now is one of the best albums of the 21st century so far, and even then it would be difficult to list its competitors for the title. Transgender singer/pianist Antony Hegarty (almost always referred to by his first name alone) is a fine songwriter, a great arranger, and one of the most emotionally intense singers in any form of music today. His alien-yet-brutally-human vibrato is delicate but can navigate across any musical terrain it needs to, leaving twin streams of shadow and sunlight in its wake.
On I Am A Bird Now, Antony uses his vocal power and a background that alternates between tough soul and stark piano-strings arrangements to create not only a masterwork of modern music but a rip in the mind where you are pulled into the singer’s purgatory. You feel the pain the singer experiences in his socio-emotional-sexual prison and the elation as he gradually breaks free from its bonds and comes to terms with himself. In other words, this is one of the saddest albums I have ever heard, but there is a sense of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Antony is a singer who hits all the right emotional buttons at all the right times. There’s not much need for him to sound happy on this album. Usually, he’s conveying vulnerability and helplessness, and at times he conveys incredible sadness (“Hope There’s Someone,” a minimal ballad that transforms into a soaring wash of sound). It seems hope and rapturous love are the main positive emotions here--the former displayed on “Today I Am A Boy” and the latter on Antony’s best soul songs, “Fistful of Love” (to an ex-lover) and “You Are My Sister” (to a sibling).
And he’s not a bad songwriter, either. Despite the delicate, angelic quality of his music, Antony does not use his flowery voice for flowery poetry. His lyrics are, in fact, very blunt. “For Today I Am A Boy” could be the greatest transgender anthem ever written, but there are no fancy metaphors. He tells you right off the bat--”One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl, but for today I am a boy.” No rich similes or sprawling analogies. And that just adds to the emotional power of this song. A similar thing is done on the perhaps even more powerful “Spiralling,” on which he sings, “Not a girl...I am some son/I am some bum.” When he whispers those last four words, you can practically feel the boiling brew of emotions within his protagonist’s head. He sounds sad, resigned, but at the same time furious and ready to take revenge against all of existence. Thus is the power of Antony Hegarty, bona fide soulman.
I Am A Bird Now is, essentially, a loose concept album about gender identity. Antony sings of women becoming men (“My Lady Story”), men becoming women (“Today I Am A Boy,”) men who are women (“Spiraling”), and men who have become women (“Free at Last,” “Bird Guhrl.”) The album starts out with songs of uncertainty, the laments of those caught in their gender confines. After “Spiraling,” we hear the brief interlude “Free at Last,” which starts out with a Morse Code message and Antony’s gentle chuckle. We wonder what the message could be, before the eerie and heavily accented voice of hermaphrodite mathematician Dr. Julia Yasuda comes in, accompanied by light strings and piano. S/he is rapturously thanking God for some sort of freedom, and while the references to meeting Jesus suggest death, the implication is freedom from the chains of gender.
“Free at Last” segues into “Bird Guhrl,” which is, in my opinion, the best song on the album and in Antony’s oeuvre. The song starts out with a piano/harp chord that could be the saddest sound ever recorded, not to mention the other three minutes of the song. Then in comes Antony, quietly repeating the phrase “I am bird girl” in a hushed voice that conveys powerful realization, before the song swells and climaxes. We can imagine Antony in an epiphanic state, perhaps curled on the floor and feeling his face with his hands. He knows he is free. He is a bird girl, and bird girls can fly. He has found his wings. He is a bird now. And he climbs to the top of a black steeple, spreads a pair of glowing, angelic wings, and takes flight. As the song fades out, our hero/ine is soaring smoothly over New York, carried by the wind and his own spirit.

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