Photo by Don Felix CervantesTen minutes after I meet him at his Chelsea apartment, Antony dashes into dense New York City traffic to recover my errant cell phone from a departing cab. I fear he might get hit and die. A half-hour later, over a cup of tea, he leans over the table and asks conspiratorially if I am a fag. (I love to ask that question, he explains with a queeny giggle.) Within an hour, he criticizes a piece I wrote about his friend Devendra Banhart. Banhart is earnest in intention and pure of heart, Antony explains, and any doubts cast upon him are tantamount to character assassination. Within the first 20 seconds of Antonys new album with his ever-morphing band, the Johnsons, he shares his deepest fears and dreams (Hope theres someone wholl take care of me when I die . . . hope theres someone thatll set my heart free). This is the sensation he creates in person: You dont just meet Antony, you are instantly immersed in his life. I first heard an advance copy of I Am a Bird Now when it began to circulate in late 2004. I knew immediately it would be a candidate for many album-of-the-year lists in 2005 at least for those who judge music using that curious channel running between the ear and the heart. Lasting only 35 minutes, its quite short. And it might seem a marginal choice because of the subject matter. (Its a collection of songs about transgendered love and transsexual angst.) But those songs, those songs, THOSE SONGS! Like many buzzed-about artists, Antony first grabs your attention via image and association. In person and in photographs, the singer is a striking figure, a chubby, 6-foot-plus cross-dresser. The cover of I Am a Bird Now extends this visual, featuring an iconic deathbed portrait of the transvestite and Warhol superstar Candy Darling. The albums credits reveal guest appearances by a whos who of androgynous singers drawn from four decades of pop the Velvet Undergrounds Lou Reed, 80s icon Boy George, 90s troubadour Rufus Wainwright, and Banhart, guru of todays freak-folk scene. By presenting a united front, they seem to announce Antony as the next great voice in this lineage of gender-bent pop. Unlike most records with such buzz, however, this one delivers on all its promise. The music is rich but unobtrusive, built from simple stuff mostly piano and a backing band, augmented by woodwinds, brass and strings. Bold arrangements raise this album above the ordinary, but what makes it worth hearing is Antonys voice a high, wobbly vibrato with which he takes perilous risks in pitch, and thrilling rides into heretofore-unknown harmonies. The fusion of sounds is far removed from anything Ive ever heard, which is not to say it will alienate fans of more traditional music. The album embraces beauty in a way that will likely get it lumped with freak-folk, but it also has a soulfulness and emotional depth that should appeal to fans of Nina Simone. Finally, though, it constitutes a class of its own. Listen to how the leadoff track, Hope Theres Someone, gently segues from a standard torch song into a vertiginous vocal assault, as surging piano is layered with a dense weave of Antonys multitracked voice. Its R&B that flowers gracefully into the stuff of audio hallucinations. Most of the songs dont go quite that far this record seems a conscious effort to charm listeners for whom the term audio hallucination is not a recommendation but the song is a good thumbnail sketch of what this music is capable of: ripping out your still-beating heart to capture your affection. Born in England and raised in California, Antony Hegarty, now in his mid-30s, landed in Manhattan in the early 90s, as a student at New York University. There he embarked on a mostly self-directed study of what he plainly calls transsexualism, and androgyny in the arts the gilded, Dionysian reveries of Jack Smiths early-60s underground films; John Waters scat-eating, drag-wearing gross-outs from the 70s; and, from the 80s, Klaus Nomis operatic pop tunes, Boy Georges campy drag routine, and the exploits of grown-up club kidcumfashion icon Leigh Bowery. It was a rough time for these culture heroes. AIDS had taken Nomi in 83, Smith in 89 and Bowery in 94. Waters was just beginning his transition to Hollywood. And it was several years before Boy George would write Taboo, the musical that threw a spotlight on Bowerys career. In a pre-Internet era, most of these artists were still fringy, forgotten curiosities. In 1998, though, after several years of performing in after-hours nightclubs to a mostly gay clientele, Antony recorded his first, self-titled album. It was released in 2000 on Durtro, a small British art label run by experimental musician David Tibet (Current 93, Nurse With Wound). It received only a few scattered notices, but it also drew a small but fervent cult of fans, most crucially among fellow artists like Banhart, Wainwright, et al. Reed, in particular, became a powerful advocate, featuring Antony as a backup singer on two albums and a world tour. Antony credits Reeds patronage for keeping him on the right path, and drawing others into his world: Lou would be like, Sorry, but were going to listen to this queen, I dont care what you say. Suddenly a lot of people would give it the time of day that would never consider me. I myself had reservations about Antonys earlier work. Like his role models, he can get caught up in what seems like a biological imperative in homo culture to make art that is theatrical, ornate, campy and wrapped in artifice. Think of the films of Waters and Smith in which characters vomit and scream, skipping genially from pose to pose, rather than emoting. For these artists, sincere feeling is the equivalent of the fourth wall; they approach it at their peril. By contrast, I Am a Bird Now is notable for its conscious turn toward the personal. I wanted this record to be much more intimate, Antony admits. I wanted the songs to be close to the ear, to feel like something you could be drawn into in a personal way, in a small space, in a home space. Certainly, some will dislike this intimacy. Antony irritably describes a recent review that oozed with suspicion: Its almost like [the reviewer] thought I was trying to trick him into having a feeling. Look, the reason my music is like this is that I wrote every one of these single songs crying my head off. The recipe for emotions is to do something emotionally. In the end, you will hear records that are smarter, sharper and catchier than I Am a Bird Now, but youll be hard-pressed to find one thats more poignant. Im reminded of my first encounter with miserablists like Elliott Smith and Cat Power. But unlike them, Antony isnt brittle, coy or unrelentingly sad on the contrary, his music is marked by a certain warmth, the valiant possibility of optimism. He pulls you in rather than pushing you away. Antony and the Johnsons appear Wednesday, March 2, at Barnsdall Art Park, with Cocorosie.
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