Antony and the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
ou wash up on the shores of a parlor/bar and Antony emerges from his man-sized wrought iron cage, covered in jewels and tears to perform for you under soft fuchsia lights, flanked by his attractive, shadowed gypsy friends the Johnsons, victims of sensitivity, full of brutal secrets. Welcome to the show, tonight we will be serving you your throbbing heart on a gilded platter garnished with good luck charms, repressed desires, winter, and dried rose petals. Antony recently trumpeted that “hope and sincerity are the new punk,” and, like the idea of that indefinite and thorny idea/genre/spirit, I am a Bird Now (the group’s second full length) is strangely confrontational in its unrelenting, no-spirit spared attitude. In a musical climate where arch cynicism and embittered detachment are basically the norm and the kids clamor over the feral, quaking warble of bands like the Arcade Fire like they didn’t realize music could be passionate, Antony and the Johnsons offer a different color of expression: Antony’s voice resembles Bryan Ferry’s plastic shell filled with blood, a wounded, angelic diva whose gaudy robes augment his subtly tortured ecstasy, rather than shroud it. His voice is carried on waves of swelling strings, piano, gentle drums and the occasional bass and guitar, an obedient and enchanting chamber orchestra. It’s dramatic, but not in a frazzled or juvenile way: soul oozes from it, with all its ragged edges and occasionally uncomfortable contortions.
The subjects of Antony’s confessions scrape at least a little beneath conventional pop melancholy: gender anxiety (“For Today I Am A Boy,” “My Lady Story”), sexualized violence (“Fistful of Love”), and suffocating vulnerability (“you are my sister, we were born / So innocent, so full of need / There were times we were friends but times I was so cruel / Each night I’d ask for you to watch me as I sleep”). Perhaps the most startling summation of the album’s concerns is the dark, brooding philosophical rumination “Man is the Baby,” a universal inquisition of our collective emotional courage, a reminder that in fact, our deepest feelings and thoughts are always frightening, tangled, and confusing. Truly a cork on the ocean, Antony pleads “forgive me, let live me, bless my destiny,” then everything curls into a ball, a foreboding ostinato bass pulsing in the night, before a string quartet emerges quietly, the sound of ice melting from your heart.
Now, navigating the emotion in music issue is tricky, like Difficulty Level 5, like that labyrinth game with the moving table and the marble. As a culture of listeners, we like to do the veracity jam a lot, naturally gravitating towards music that seems to articulate our shared emotions in a “recognizable,” “accurate,” and “honest” way, and particularly expressive music usually gets lionized for being so, but can, in the same instant, be dismissed for being excessively earnest, needlessly serious, and self-indulgent. I am a Bird Now can feel frivolous, corny, and embarrassing—if it does, perhaps you’re either too cool or too far gone to care. Stripping away our reluctance to recognize soul in music is a difficult task, but I am a Bird Now is a record capable of balancing emotional darkness with celebration, balancing beauty with uncertainty, ushering in what Antony has called “the Time of Flourishing Beauty” with tact and dignity.