When attempting to describe the singing style of Antony, the creative force behind Antony and the Johnsons, the instinct is to throw out a smattering of comparisons. Nina Simone meets Boy George. Devendra Banhart meets Joss Stone. But none of these pairings do justice to the intensely individual sound Antony has developed over fifteen years of late-night performances in New York cabarets.
Putting in his time behind a piano, backed by a rotating cast of musicians in his six-piece band, Antony has found a voice that expresses what it feels like to be trapped in that gray area between misery and rage. He has also found fans with names that have their own stunning vocal reputations: Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, even Banhart and Boy George themselves. Having collaborated or toured with each of these musicians in recent years, Antony welcomes them all as guests on his second full-length, I Am a Bird Now.
Antony, who was born in England and lived in northern California before heading east for the city where he would receive a grant for performance art at the end of his teens, has much more to say than “Baby, why don’t you love me anymore?” Unlike most of the “singer/songwriters” currently being forced on the general public by major labels, the questions Antony raises in his music present an understanding of the universal aspects of the trials that inform his songs. The thirty-five-minute album’s ten tracks are captivating expressions of love, gender and identity’s various forms. There is much to identify with, even in the album’s climactic “Fistful of Love,” which describes what happens when devotion is overturned and violence is found.
The best sad songs sound good even on a sunny day, because the combination of vocal and instrumental melodies — in this album’s case, a dazzling combination of guitar, strings and woodwinds — inform the listener on much more than just a lyrical litany of pain. Quality songwriting sweeps the listener up in a whirlwind of emotions that hold sadness at the center, and then it gently sets them back down so they can apply what they’ve heard to their own lives. Hopefully, the attention focused on I Am a Bird Now will provide a foundation for more albums depicting strength in adversity.