You know that tune "Songbird" by Fleetwood Mac? It's by Christine McVie, but it's as light and wispy as those dresses Stevie Nicks used to float around the stage in. One of the loveliest songs from the entire, gorgeous 1970s, it has a chorus that goes, "The songbirds are singing/ Like they know the score/ And I love you…like never before." I've always heard "Songbird" as a musical talisman, a soothing meta-lullaby about the power of a special kind of musician to console, and maybe even heal. This week, Portland is graced with one of these songbirds whose fluttery, angelic voice will absolutely gong your soul, if you let it all the way in there. I speak of the visionary, New York-based singer-songwriter-pianist Antony and the art-cabaret stylings of his band, the Johnsons.
I know it's just now March, but the best record of the year, hands down, has already been released. It's called I Am a Bird Now by (you guessed it) Antony and the Johnsons. Like all musical masterpieces, this album is likely to offend the ears at first, but after a few listens a true judgment can be made. Bird is a vast improvement over the band's self-titled 1998 debut, which is saying a lot. It's no surprise to learn that the strange, sultry songs on that album had their origins in after-hours plays performed at New York City's Pyramid Club. But it's this new album that sounds like it's being sung in a dark, velvet-adorned club. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's not really meant to be. The tenderest love song is called "Fistful of Love," after all.
The star is Antony's voice itself, an androgynous vibrato soaked in emotion that has garnered comparisons to Nina Simone, Bryan Ferry and Little Jimmy Scott. "The first album is more theatrical and was my first stab at working with musicians in a studio," Antony explained via his cell phone while on tour somewhere in Canada. "It had a 'high feeling,' a very dramatic sound. I wanted to make this album more intimate, and thankfully by the time we recorded it, I'd been playing with these musicians for five years, so we could do that."
Antony has packed his band with all-stars from the kind of music scene that's filled with people who studied music theory at college (i.e., not indie rock), including Rasputina founder Julia Kent and Rufus Wainwright's pianist, Jason Hart. The arrangements are exquisite throughout, from the sighing strings on "My Lady Story" to the swaying white soul horns on "Fistful." There are celebrity appearances here, but they're handled with such grace it's downright weird.
The vocals of Devendra Banhart and Boy George blend eerily well with Antony's soprano trill. Lou Reed's tasteful little noisy guitar solo connects the work to the Factory of the '60s, while Boy George and Rufus Wainwright add a touch
of gay iconography from the '80s and '90s to this album by
a man who could surely fill that role for the '00s.
A narrative, loosely related to the bending and the transformation of gender, runs through I Am a Bird Now. It's strong enough to hold the record together, while loose enough to evade the trappings of "concept" albums. "I feel like it's a dense record," Antony says. "I edited it down heavily. I wanted it to be a song cycle that clipped things that seemed essential."
And the song cycle works. Bird is devastating in its sincerity, not merely audacious or camp. In fact, you could think of it as the exact flipside of high camp. The album's emotional peak comes on "My Lady Story," a tale of breast-cancer survival that makes me cry. And I never cry—I'm a big, straight white guy with no emo in me.
Antony's music is imbued with death as well. On "Hope There's Someone," the opening track, Antony sings, "Hope there's someone who will take care of me when I die," then says simply that he's "scared of the middle place between light and nowhere." The album is dedicated to the memory of performance artist Page, an East Village icon Antony describes as "sort of a Surrealist, a white Grace Jones, a transsexual star who was a great inspiration to so many
people. She was so far out there, so beautiful." There's a photo of her on the inside of the CD booklet, which has exquisite artwork that drops multiple hints about the album's content, and its emotional heft: close-ups of a calendar with dates scratched off it from an abandoned Philadelphia prison cell, Peter Hujar's photo of transgendered Warhol superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed, and a heartbreaking artifact of gender-reassignment therapy from the 1960s.
Antony knows a lot about the history of drag and transgendered performance, having studied at NYU in the early '90s with Martin Worman, a former writer for the groundbreaking San Francisco drag troupe the Cockettes. "They did a lot of ecstatic theater, and that was a vibe I was very much interested in," he explains. Along with the ecstatic characters, though, Antony was also exposed to a subculture with its own specialized sadness and depression, and that is what appears on I Am a Bird Now.
My favorite singer-songwriters are all drawn to "dark" subject matter and inevitably lead or have led pretty intense lives at some point. Like the best lullabies, Mac's "Songbird" is sad, or emotionally complex, anyway. It sounds like it's being sung from some spring of lasting sorrow. Likewise, when Antony approaches his subject matter truly head-on, it's transformed into a thing of beauty with curative powers. Not to say that when he sings, "One day I'll grow up and be a beautiful woman," on "For Today I Am a Boy," you'll start questioning your own gender, but you might just start to understand his character's yearning.
Antony and the Johnsons play with CocoRosie Saturday, March 5, at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., 231-9663. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.