Antony and the Johnsons – I am a Bird Now review

Secret Meeting score: 98

by Mark Jackson

Anohni is a UK born, US raised transgender woman. An alternative theatre graduate and founder of critically acclaimed New York music ensemble, Antony and the Johnsons. Formerly Antony Hegarty, she has released a stunning catalogue of eight studio albums, EPs and live performances that cross artistic genre and continue to push her own creative character.

Most recently Anohni’s superb vocal prowess has captivated a contemporary audience with the ultra-modern, electronic, political and environmental protest of her 2016 release, Hopelessness. The striking music, stunning vocal and unconventional subject matter of this bitterly angry album (topics include state-sponsored execution, torture, animal abuse and looming environmental disaster), have rightly left audiences with a profound emotive connection. Yet this pails into insignificance when compared with the deeply affecting personal despair of Antony and the Johnson’s 2005 sophomore offering, I Am A Bird Now.

Released in 2005 to widespread critical acclaim, I Am a Bird Now won the year’s Mercury Music Prize and deservedly cast the group’s lead Anohni (then Antony) into mainstream public consciousness.

The record is an overwhelmingly beautiful collection of ten captivating and phenomenally emotive songs. In just 35 blissful, intoxicating minutes, the listener is left with the same exhausting emotional disturbance as though having just watched a complex, moving and ever-intensifying three hour cinematic thriller. With an often disturbing choice of topic – domestic violence, breast amputation, death and transsexuality – this spellbindingly melancholic album is an astounding achievement in voice, music and lyrical content.

The album sleeve, itself a salient and evocative talking point, is the iconic 1973 Peter Hujar photograph, Candy on Her Deathbed. It captures the transsexual icon, Candy Darling, who starred in many Andy Warhol projects, perhaps most famously promoted as a Warhol Superstar – a group of personalities who would help Warhol generate publicity while he offered fame and attention in return. She was also name-checked in album guest Lou Reed’s 1972 hit, Walk on the Wild Side. 

The image of Darling at 29 years of age, lying in her deathbed, has a haunting quality that sets suspense for the musical journey to follow. Importantly, Hujar could have focused his work on the cancer that was killing Darling. Instead, he has captured the beauty of his subject in a defiant effort to challenge the taboos of homo and transsexuality in 1970’s New York. Speaking of the work, Hujar, who himself died of AIDS related-pneumonia, said that he chose to take a portrait “imbued with the glamour of a Hollywood film still”. The contrasting beauty and vulnerability captured within the image provides the perfect accompaniment to the personal exposures of Anohni throughout I Am a Bird Now, which also sonically captures a sense of Hollywood glamour in spite of the heartfelt subject matters.

Deathbed imagery springs to mind with the opening meditative reflection of the album- ‘Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me, When I die, Will I go?’ It’s a line that hits like a punch to the stomach despite its tender delivery, accompanied only by Anohni’s concert hall piano. Hope There’s Someone is a fearful and lonely opener; Anohni crying out for companionship- ‘Hope there’s someone who’ll set my heart free, nice to hold when I’m tired.’ 

The music builds in intensity throughout its pensive reflections on passing – ‘Oh I’m scared of the middle place, between light and nowhere, I don’t want to be the one left in there, left in there’ – until the breaking point where the piano is thrashed and joined by Anohni’s otherworldly cries – queue goose-bumps.

The tremblingly beautiful balladry continues with the next two tracks, which explore the artist’s deeply personal reflections on identity and gender. ‘My lady story is one of annihilation, my lady story is one of breast amputation.’ My Lady Story is an autobiographical tale of unhappiness with the artist’s gender assignment at birth- ‘I’m so broken babe, But I want to see, Some shining eye, Some of my beauty.’ 

The autobiographical tone continues with For Today I Am a boy, which is the hopeful consideration of a child longing for the day he can feel confident and happy by claiming the true identity she has known for so long. ‘One day I’ll grow up, I’ll feel the power in me, one day I’ll grow up, of this I’m sure. For today I am a child, for today I am a boy’.  Musically this is the most powerful song on the record and the doubled vocal adds to the command of the hopeful longing for joy that will come with transition.

On You Are My Sister, Anohni is joined by her childhood hero Boy George, an artist whose increasing androgyny in rising stardom provided a deep reassurance that difference was acceptable and wholly usual. Anohni is on record as attributing her own unique voice to years of imitation of the Culture Club frontman. The track brings standout performances from both artists whose vocals intertwine to create a beautiful sense of solidarity and companionship – ‘You are my sister, and I love you, may all of your dreams come through’ are the first words sung by Boy George in a delivery that provides an awesome feeling of solace and comfort, and also potentially brings the most beautiful moment of the record.

Pop extravert, Rufus Wainwright, is next to join the cast of Johnsons, on the cabaret inspired What Can I Do. A track of little more than 90 seconds, the pair repeatedly ponder, ‘What can I do?’ and although the track lacks in the same substance of lyrical content as elsewhere, it holds a significant enough charm and hopefulness to avoid any accusation of being anincidental star turn.

Album standout, Fistful of Love, is as exceptional and sinister a love song as you are ever likely to hear. Lou Reed’s spoken word intro sets the scene of a lover lying alone in bed and pondering the meaning of a love that is all consuming- ‘I tell you I love you and I always will and I know that you can’t tell me.’ The woman goes on to convince herself that the abuse suffered is a valid sign of affection and love that would otherwise be absent from the relationship. ‘So I’m left to pick up the hints, the little symbols of your devotion. I feel your fists, and I know it’s out of love.’

The aggressive ripping of Lou Reed’s electric guitar and the ever intensifying vivacity of the mix of brass and percussion all act to aggravate the tension that is portrayed in the graphic outplay of the worstmoments of this relationship. The result is a harrowing song that captivates attention, generating an intrigue and morbid curiosity that demands repeated listens.

The final two guest performances come from American-Venezuelan singer songwriter and visual artist, Devendra Banhart, and Manchurian transgender performer, Julia Yasuda, on tracks Spiralling and Free at Last.  The former, another heartfelt reflection of the injustice felt with the assigned gender of birth – ‘In my cruel love gold poisoned, I was born, born not a girl and not a jewel’ is a wonderful and melodic piece of music that juxtaposes the lyrical content once more. The latter a poem about freedom and hope read out over the simplest of repeated piano chords.

Final track, Bird Guhl, resolves much that has gone before with this sense of freedom now fully solving the previous feelings of entrapment. The artist finding her wings, embracing and accepting fully her own unique identity – ‘I’ve been searching for my wings for some time. I’m gonna be born into the sky…cause I’m a bird girl, and the bird girls go to heaven, and bird girls can fly’.

As with The Bad Seeds to Nick Cave, the musical ensemble of the Johnsons and the album’s guests play the support role to the lead star exquisitely well, knowing exactly the role of framing a voice and narrative that is so wonderfully captivating.  The Johnsons’ musical cast of flutes, cellos, violins and percussion, alongside the classical tinkerings of Anohni’s concert hall piano cut a deeply anxious yet enthralling tone throughout the record. Surrounded by the unique multi-octave opera of Anohni’s voice, the overall sound is one that is as diverse and unique in 2018 as it was when first released in 2005.

The truth is that none of the superlatives used in this review can actually effectively portray either my own deep love for this recording or adequately prepare a new listener for their staggering beauty. Neither can it describe the heart-rending impact that a first play will produce, nor the joy the album will bring with every subsequent listen. The review could quite simply have ended with the label ‘masterpiece’.