Antony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now

Part 21 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

In August 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Chicago, IL for a long weekend. My geeky excitement was building to a crescendo – yes, I’d be able to listen to the Sufjan Stevens album Come On Feel The Illinoise in the state of Illinois in the year of release (I told you before – I’m not very cool). I’d also have a chance to check out Marina City – the unique Chicago hotel structure that was made (even more) famous by being on the cover of Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While I was plotting my geeky adventures I also decided to steal a bit of Lake Michigan (by way of an empty soda bottle), eat at the original Pizzeria Uno, and drive South along Lake Michigan until I hit the Eastern time zone – so I could go “back in time” like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future.

As was my custom back then I loaded up on music magazines at Seatac International Airport. The flight from Seattle to Chicago isn’t all that long (about 4 hours) but it’d give me enough time to absorb all the latest record reviews so that I’d be able to pick up some tunes whilst cruising around the city. Two reviews I jotted down to remember just in case – the latest Johnny Cash box set, and a record by a band called Antony and the Johnsons. The most notable thing at the time to me was that somehow Boy George AND Lou Reed both supplied guest vocals (not to mention Rufus Wainright and Devendra Banhart). I was curious but nothing beyond that – if I found it, great. If not – I’d probably forget all about it (at least for the weekend).

Thankfully I managed to find a copy that weekend. It became my Chicago soundtrack – people would pull up next to my rental car blasting the latest summertime hits and I’d blast them right back – with my operatic, heartbreaking music that tugged at the heartstrings. I can’t be positive, but I thought I saw tears in the eyes of the people next to me as they were emotionally overtaken by the voice of Antony Hegarty (or they could have just had something in their eyes). This album was not only my Chicago soundtrack – it has become my go to album when I’m facing intense pressure or just need some quiet time alone. Antony is always there for me.

Between Light and Nowhere…

Hope There’s Someone starts the album off in dramatic fashion. Just piano and Antony’s quivering voice. The lyrics go straight to the heart and create a feeling of longing like few other songs can. Antony reaches into the highest part of his vocal range at times, creating an unsettling feeling. The song builds towards a climax of emotion, strings, and Antony singing his heart out. Stunning. Breathtaking. Key lyrics:

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

Hope there’s someone
Who’ll take care of me
When I die, Will I go

My Lady Story A sing-a-long chant with Antony’s voice double tracked at times which helps create a unique feeling to the song. Piano and strings embellish the song, but this is all about Antony’s beautiful voice. The music completely fades away towards the end of the song leaving just Antony – a very nice effect. The song is written from the female perspective (something Antony will do throughout the album). Key lyrics:

Lie in road for you
And I’ve been your slave
My wombs an ocean full of
Grief and rage

My lady story
My lady story

For Today I Am a Boy Antony switches gender perspective throughout this song – a song written for those who identify with a sex other than the one they were born with. Emotional delivery but not over the top – lyrics that really drive the point home. Chamber pop piano backing. Key lyrics:

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl

But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy

Man Is The Baby a darker affair than the previous track. Minimal piano with timely string accompaniment. The track builds towards an emotional climax but is reserved in feel compared to the opening track (that pulled the same trick). Antony quivers and sings his heart out until the song breaks down into a dark jazz workout. Key lyrics:

Burning for the true day
I welcome your new life for me
Forgive me, let live me
Set my spirit free

You Are My Sister A mournful feel opens this song before Antony’s double tracked voice comes in. A very emotional performance – I hesitate to say sad (though its downbeat). As the song progresses Antony becomes overwhelmed with emotion in his delivery. Backing is piano and strings yet again. A song that reminds me of my sister 3000 miles away and has been my ringtone for her for 7 years (and it never gets old). Features a certain Boy George throughout the song. Key lyrics:

You are my sister – and I love you
May all of your dreams come true
I want this for you
They’re gonna come true

What Can I Do? A little piano refrain and then a familiar voice comes in – Rufus Wainright’s, that is. The material is so strong that having multiple guest singers does not detract from the album at all. A deeper album cut, a very short jazz-ish workout. Key lyrics:

What can I do
When she’s calling my name
She’s crying – Mama help me to live
What can I do

Fistful of Love the music with this one is one of those jazzy songs that you want to just snap your fingers to the beat and sing your heart out. Features Lou Reed who is famous for making an album with Metallica that hipsters everywhere universally panned. Oh yeah, he was also in The Velvet Underground. At the time of this record much, much more famous than Antony. Again, his guest vocals are welcome and do not detract from this song at all. As the song progresses horns take the place of your snapping fingers (you were snapping, weren’t you?) A noisy guitar sound is lower in the mix which adds a nice white noise vibe (Oh, Lou!). The song is not about a sexual act despite the title. Key lyrics:

I accept and I collect upon my body
The memories of your devotion
I accept and I collect upon by body
The memories of your devotion

Spiralling A very uneasy song with a lengthy introduction sung by Devendra Banhart. After the joyous musical workout of the previous song, this is very subdued. Singing is simply amazing (something that I say a lot about Antony). A deeper album cut, Antony & piano. Key lyrics:

Well I’m spiralling
In my broken hearted game
I’ve got all my fives
I’ve got all my ones to choose from

Free At Last a very short piano piece, spoken lyrics, designed to segue into the last song. Key lyrics:

On my knees when the light pass’d by
I thank God I’m free at last
Tho’t my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I’m free at last

Bird Gehrl the album ends on a subdued note, Antony going for pure atmosphere to close out this masterpiece of a record. Piano and string embellishments with his operatic tones over everything. As the song progresses key piano notes pop higher into the mix and his voice is double tracked, giving the song a haunting vibe. A perfect conclusion. Key lyrics:

I’m gonna be born
Into soon the sky
‘Cause I’m a bird girl
And the bird girls go to heaven

Antony and the Johnsons have released quite a few albums in the time since this record – all of them critically acclaimed (in fact there is a live orchestral record due to be released this month). None hit me as hard as this one. This is a record for quiet time by the fire. This is a record to play with your friends – joyous occasions celebrating life. This record is for those who feel they aren’t understood – the outsiders. If you open your mind and let Antony into your heart – this record is for you.

Join me next week as I discuss a mid 90’s classic – Rubberneck by Toadies.

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