I Am A Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons
Look at Amazon's best-seller list today, little over a week after the winner of the Mercury Music Prize was announced, and you'll see that I Am A Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons is second only to David Gray's Life in Slow Motion. There's a sweet irony in the fact that an album written and performed by an androgynous, openy gay cabaret artist - an album pierced with emotion, delving into difficult transgender themes - is outselling The Rolling Stones and much safer, easier options by the likes of KT Tunstall and James Blunt. The Mercury Prize is much-maligned (and as Antony himself said, the diversity of the twelve albums shortlisted made it "like a contest between an orange, a spaceship, a potted plant and a spoon"), but if it brings music like this to the public consciousness it is not without merit.
Antony was born in England and grew up in California. Aged 12, he found inspiration on the cover of Culture Club's Kissing to be Clever. "I saw my reflection in Boy George," he told The Daily Telegraph. "I realised that's what we do when we're like this. We become singers." He moved to New York after seeing the Mondo New York documentary and finding himself drawn to the cabaret scene it depicted, receiving a grant for performance art and showcasing his talents at the Pyramid Club in the city's East Village. In time, he formed Antony and the Johnsons, releasing a self-titled debut in 2000, followed by a string of EPs and this second, Mercury-winning full-length. It is by no means an easy listen, but it's one of the most rewarding efforts of the year so far by quite some distance.
The sleevenotes reflect the themes of the record and were intended to guide people through its ideas. On the front cover is Peter Hujar's photo Candy Darling On Her Deathbed, taken at New York's Cabrini Hospital the night the drag queen died from leukaemia (Hujar himself died of AIDS in the late 80s). Inside is a photograph of a woman called Page, described by Antony as the Candy Darling of his generation - an avant-garde, surrealist transexual friend of the singer who died from a drug overdose - also in the Cabrini Hospital - in 2002. The album is dedicated to her. The rest of the artwork is made up of items Antony found himself, including a calendar from an abaondoned prison cell in Philadelphia and letters taken from a medical journal on sex reassignment and hermaphrodism. They were written by a transgendered child and read: "Father, I got to B a boy. Mother, I got to B a boy." In the same childlike scrawl on the CD is the plea: "Dear Dr., I do not want to be a boy. I want to be a girl."
This imagery is reflected throughout the album, which feels like a very personal, intimate piece of work. It deals with gender confusion, identity and eventual self-realisation, starting in utter pathos and climaxing in triumph, Antony's bird flying high and free. From the moment his voice hangs trembling in the air on wistful, yearning opener Hope There's Someone to the glorious, celebratory soar of closing track Bird Guhl - on which he sings "I've been searching / For my wings some time / I'm gonna be born / Into soon the sky" - it's impossible not to be transfixed by this strange, soulful character and his arresting, elegant music.
Some of it is uncomfortable, painful stuff - on My Lady Story, Antony sings of breast amputation and annihilation; Fistfull of Love juxtaposes a swaying soul track with brutal, violent metaphors ("I feel your fists / And I know it's out of love") - but there's hope here, too, and on For Today I Am A Boy the tone is elated, proud; Antony declaring that "One day I'll grow up / Be a beautiful woman".
Several of Antony's peers and heroes join him on the album: Lou Reed and Devendra Banhart contribute introductions to Fistfull of Love and Spiralling respectively, Boy George duets on the gorgeous You Are My Sister and Rufus Wainwright takes lead vocals on What Can I Do?. But accomplished though they all are, these singers are outshone by Antony, whose enigmatic, searching voice punctuates the album with a hypnotic, otherworldly quality. It's testament to his talent that not one of these heavyweights even attempts to steal the limelight.
I Am A Bird Now's themes might not be mainstream, but there's no denying that voice; vulnerable and powerful at the same time, it's neither male nor female and has a raw, emotional edge that not everyone will appreciate. If it gets you in its grip, though, it really gets you - and that, for me, makes it one of the most compelling and spellbinding releases of 2005 so far. Spine-tingling.