Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Album Review: I Am A Bird Now

It's not often that new music actually stops you in your tracks, but it was only those made of granite that weren't hushed into an awed silence the first time they heard Antony sing. "Hope there's someone who'll take care of me when I die", the opening words to the best album of the year.

From the Peter Hujar photo, Candy Darling On Her Deathbead, that adorns the sleeve, to some of the subject matter - breast amputation (My Lady Story), domestic violence (Fistful Of Love) and gender confusion (For Today I Am A Boy) - it might appear to be a hard shell to crack, but what makes I Am A Bird Now all the more compelling is that Antony is able to take what are profoundly personal words and transform them into something highly ambiguous and hugely accessible.

Nonetheless, it is Antony's voice that, for many, is the main draw. Equal parts Nina Simone, Labi Siffre, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Scott, Antony sings with such sadness, such belief, such frailty and such authority that he could be singing about anything and it wouldn't matter. Even better then, that the lyrics should be so affecting and challenging.

It's somewhat fitting an album which, more than anything, draws on feelings of isolation and loneliness should have such a stellar cast of supporting players. Long-time Antony champion, Lou Reed, adds an unpretentious and almost terse spoken word intro to Fistful Of Love, before Antony delivers a heartbreaking account of domestic abuse ("I feel your fist and I know it's out of love"). Immediately afterwards, Devendra Banhart adds some disturbing incantations to the beginning of the staggering Spiralling.

Just preceding those two songs is What Can I Do? Here, Antony relinquishes the lead vocal role and allows Rufus Wainwright to take centre stage. Wainwright, a highly accomplished singer himself is, despite his best efforts, ultimately upstaged by Antony's supreme backing vocals.

Of the collaborations though, it is, perhaps surprisingly, Antony's duet with Boy George on You Are My Sister than works best. George, who offers his best vocal perfomance since The Crying Game, holds Antony's hand through a paean to broken friendship that is one of the album's most poignant moments.

But, in the end, I Am A Bird Now is not about the special guests; it's about the beauty of Antony's voice, the power of his delivery and the bravery of his words. After Antony has found his wings and completed his metamorphosis on the concluding track, the beauteous Bird Gerhl, the listener is left to reflect on an album of transformation and transcendence, an album that is life affirming and tragic at the same time, an album that is immeasurable in scope and, at times, uncomfortably confessional. An album that has quite literally nothing in common with the rest of the musical output of this decade so far.

And that, if nothing else, is worth celebrating.

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