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Bird’ flies in haunting, personal album

James Costa | Wednesday, September 5, 2007

There are few acts who have the ability to capture a listener’s attention immediately and not let go until the last note of the album slowly fades to silence. Antony and the Johnsons’ “I Am a Bird Now” is one of those albums.

From the first song, Antony’s voice flows in an expression of loneliness, an articulation of every feeling we’ve ever wished we could convey and found ourselves cursed without the ability to find the right words. Just as Antony finds the words, he also finds the music, and the result is exhilarating, despairing and haunting.

“I am a Bird Now” is a complex record and fulfills a host of meanings. It’s a soul record, which means that it does not fulfill a strict definition of the genre and so cannot be classified as such. Yet the music is strong. It’s disturbing, it’s searing, it’s pained, and it’s elegantly raw. It is soulful as any enduring soul record should ever be.

One of the disc’s strengths is its insistence on moving beyond the realm of simple music. Much more than a series of 11 separate tracks, Antony brilliantly guides the listener into a wholly new sphere of melodious storytelling. Quite akin to the confusing nature of David Lynch films such as “Mulholland Drive” and “Blue Velvet,” the music is at once confession and accusation, a note of lasting return and final departure.

Most songs on the record are a reflection of the gender-bending experiences of Antony’s life. However, the songs are not labored by their thick content. Rather, they illuminate a reality so malleable to the listener that each tune becomes, with a bit of reflection, an opportunity for thought and poignancy regardless of one’s stance on the inspiration for the song. While the difficulties faced by Antony are at times excruciating, the album emerges as a testament to hope and perseverance.

A particularly moving song is the album’s bridge song “Fistful of Love.” Featuring Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, the song has one of the more upbeat tempos of the album.

Its lyrical message, however, conveys a deep understanding of the cruelty sometimes found in the search for love. While he is an owner of a wounded perception of love, Antony nonetheless sings honestly of his personal struggle for acceptance from a distanced lover. So different from much of today’s musical offering, the song’s lasting power is in its assurance that the words are sung from the mouth of a real person.

Adding to the appeal of the album is the stellar lineup of guest appearances, including Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright and Rob Moose of Sufjan Stevens. Lending their talents to the Johnsons, the record is arranged with each song continuing the story of Antony until the moment comes when the record ends, and it is clear that he has finally shed the burdens of life — free as a bird, free at last.