In February 2005 Antony and the Johnsons released their 2nd studio album I Am A Bird Now. The album sold slowly until it was (correctly) awarded the Mercury Music Award in September of that same year.
It is fair and true to say that the musical style is not my usual ‘thing‘ – however, when music is this earnest and raw, no matter what the genre – it will always get through to me. Be it The Ink Spots, Crass, Beastie Boys, Slayer, Laurie Anderson, Ramones, etc, … great music is just that – great music. Simple really?
The albums artwork conveys how deep and open it is. It features a moving, stylish, black & white photo of Dandy Darling on her deathbed. The image looks vulnerable but also quite strikingly beautiful.
Hope There’s Someone kicks in with a slow balladry. Piano and that gobsmackingly unique voice of Antony Hegarty. “oh I’m scared of the middle place between place between life and nowhere”…. the lyrics hit a nerve and you realise you are listening to a very accomplished artist straight away. The final two minutes of the song veer off into a really moving piano break. This is more akin to a rock guitar solo maybe. I’ve not heard a piano pounded to such brutal effect probably ever. The vocal drifts into a moaning mantra and the overall sound somehow evokes Radiohead even if it does make that band look like the indie grumblers that is sometimes levelled at them. To summarise, in one listen a new artist has already established himself as a very unique talent and you sense no boundaries.
My Lady Story has a more whole band sound. It continues the vibe of the opening song with prominent piano. Playing its cards closer to its chest than the startlingly open preceding song it serves to shape the record.
For Today I Am A Buoy pushes the album further. Driving piano and gentle backing you figure the group are very much led by the lead singer. That’s not to knock the band. I have seen them play live once and the band are a very talented outfit indeed.
Man Is The Baby looks for forgiveness and wallows in self-doubt. Throbbing bass and near perfect orchestration rock what is a stark ballad. This sound works in a way Elton John would probably kill for and it sounds timeless.
You Are My Sister has backing vocals from Boy George. It’s quite freaky how similar the two look (George / Hegarty). The song moves into a full-blown duet. It is respectful and loving as the two artists nod to each other.
What Can I Do? hand the vocal duties to Rufus Wainwright. The sound does sound a lot like Radiohead at their very best. The song serves as a kind of break but only one of real style.
Fistful Of Love features Lou Reed dueting with Hegarty. This addition makes me think of Lou Reed’s New York album – the black and white feel of both albums, the simplicity of their stark art. The song is heavy but also has a very triumphant feel. For the first time on the album the instruments rise to damn near challenge those ridiculously great vocals. Lou Reed backs away from the mic in near admittance that he cannot compete – then again this album is no competition – it is something rare spewing from your speakers and this song inclines one to turn the volume dial-up a notch.
Spiralling begins with startlingly haunting vocals by Devendra Banhart. Antony Hegarty takes over and the song twists into storytelling of the very best kind. The vocals lock together at choral parts as the music stutters and orchestrates in equal measure.
Free At Last is as experimental as the album ventures. Morse code and soft piano spoken over by Julia Yasuda. It is a short song that introduces Antony and the Johnsons for the last song proper…
Bird Gerhl closes the album in style. It has a lot of phoenix from the flames feel about it and is a welcome lift to end this great album with a very positive feel.
After I Am A Bird Now won the Mercury Music Award it sold substantially better and hit Number 14 in the U.K. Album Charts. It established the group and is the best ever instance of this award having merit.
Catch them live if you can. The shows are strangely filled with humour and bizarre cover versions and of course key songs from their strong back catalogue. Rather like Radiohead gigs the live shows feel very communal amongst strangers. You will be moved but you will smile an awful lot too…