Monday, April 29, 2013

Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now (2005)

(Secretly Canadian)

I first saw Antony Hegarty in the hot-and-cold Leonard Cohen tribute concert film I'm Your Man and initially was thrown in the best way by his delicately wavering voice and then, when he reached the emotional climax of "If It Be Your Will" and approached it with the high drama of a grand spiritual, dredging something up from the absolute depths of himself, I was sold -- if nothing else, then on his skill as a performer, a sort of hybrid between Aretha Franklin and Bryan Ferry. On finally, years and years later, giving my full attention to his band's signature album, I'm happy to discover plenty more of that same full-bodied singing, which is unmistakably committed and pretty immediately affecting, but unfortunately interrupted a little too often for my tastes.

"Soul" is not the most frequent association we make with modern indie rock; its layers of irony and detachment more often than not prevent such a reading, and when an artist comes across something like sincerity it's seldom in an aesthetic manner comparable to the nearly-indisputably higher, more universal performance art in R&B. Hegarty can't stand up to the giants in the older field but it's truly admirable to hear him try -- and he has an operatic, expressive voice that for a certain contingent of listeners is bound to recall Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards, high praise indeed. He fits best with something like the romantic hopelessness of hushed, intimate opener "Hope There's Someone," a song that sounds as though it's existed for centuries and is merely being interpreted -- underlined by the urgency of Hegarty's transcendentally lovely piano solo. That dramatic closeness is stronger yet on "My Lady Story," a sort of Gregorian chant as reimagined by Aaron Neville -- a remarkable song, brilliantly arranged, but held together by his tremendous voice.

After that, Hegarty unfortunately often lets guests take center stage, and he's got a slew of them: Boy George sings one cut, Devandra Banhart another, and these are his heroes and it's moving to hear him put words and music in their mouths. But it feels as if Hegarty is best when it's just him and the band and little clutter beyond, especially when his thematic fixations of gender identity are so crucial to his lyrics; only Rufus Wainwright really sounds at home on one of Hegarty's songs, believably channeling Sarah Vaughan on the melancholic "What Can I Do?". Without Hegarty's focused and wrapped-around-the-heart voice, you're somewhat overwhelmed by the florid pretensions of his compositions -- which are sometimes great and sometimes dull and always better when he's selling them directly to us, but even at that, the endless parade of lyrical trickery that follows "one day I'll grow up / I'll be a beautiful woman" with the same line only "beautiful girl" and then concludes "for today I am a boy" and some time later, adds "bird girls can fly" grows... tiresome, all fitted to such nebulous song titles as "Man Is the Baby" and "You Are My Sister." You feel at times as if you're meant more to analyze and nod your head at this music than enjoy it.

All that ends up meaning, though, is that the record is extremely frontloaded, with its great joys limited largely to the first two cuts and the climax, "Fistful of Love," which features an awkward Lou Reed introduction then slides into a gloriously minimalistic slowjam not dissimilar to Reed chestnuts like "Coney Island Baby" and "Temporary Thing" but all the more nakedly emotive; Reed's one of our most brilliant singers, but he couldn't have put across anything like the gradual build to the moment when Hegarty seems to be transmitting his lost mind and lifted spirit into the wires of his microphone. As he slips away, as the horns go with him, so do we -- and you can't blame the record for failing to live up to that afterward. There are yet to come the Freddy Mercuryisms of "Find the Rhythm of Your Love" which will delight many, but as soon as the record's over I went back and listened to "Fistful of Love" twice more. And as soon as I post this, I will go and listen to it again. That, for now, is Hegarty's legacy for me.

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