Even if there are many antecedents for Antony and the Johnsons’ brave music, and even if others less (and more) talented have mined sumptuous cabaret/lounge white soul before, no one has merged the elusive, silvery sounds of confessional torture with the improv spirit of West Coast jazz like he does. And he, the one-named androgyne Antony, is the one to do it. Bi-coastal, ideologically transgendered, individualistic, multi-cultured and idiosyncratically fused with barely lit corners of nature, Antony is a vocalist whose histrionics are layered and webbed, shuffling the historical deck and standing quite alone. He maintains reverential and gossipy exchanges with the giants who came before; like the clumsy Basquiat, the odder aspects of his melodramatic, moody theater seem reactionary. Antony has enough change roiling inside; he need not seek it elsewhere.
This curious battle between avant-garde art and conservative thinking is not new. Think Pound, Yeats and Eliot in the battle-scarred century past and Antony’s contemporary heroes: Boy George, Lou Reed, Bobby Short, Andy Warhol. The songs’ delightful “pure” aspects of art betray, however, a strong cosmopolitan overtone and knockout musical fantasies of toughness that are belied by the quaking vocal architecture, the small, sharp stabs of pain. Antony’s bar-room operatics hark back to the quivering, androgynous dynamics of Little Jimmy Scott, the trilling melisma of Yma Sumac, Bowie’s Weimar cabaret affect (there are songs on the debut about Hitler and Dietrich), Bryan Ferry’s arch posturing and Diamanda Galas’s penchant for Kurt Weill. These sophistications, refracted, are the recognizable signature of Antony and Antony alone.
The self-titled debut is a lurid glance at Antony’s impressionable nature; the songs dawdle, harmlessly bumbling their ways from benevolent riff to extensive cocktail piano tinkling. Antony plays piano, with Mariana Davenport on flute, the great Todd Cohen on drums, famed Coney Island hermaphrodite Baby Dee on harp and Francois Gehin on bass. Most of them are classically trained, free in this hothouse of cabaret drama to jazzily spruce up the background, coloring the sounds with evanescent threads of intimacy. But background they are: as Antony worries over his broken heart, an unfeeling world and mountains that need climbing, he immerses himself in tentative, inward ambiguities with a voice that is caretaker to all things forlorn, protector of the sick. If at times musically immature, these songs — about AIDS, German cinema and lovers uncoupled — are touching, surreal and intimate.
The three-song singles are necessary. Besides killer art (“The Lake” features a stunning Candy Darling photo), they each contain non-LP tracks, thus chronicling the time spent during the long gap between albums. “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” includes a brilliant take on David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s “Mystery of Love”; “The Lake” is a duet with Lou Reed. The dispensable “Hope There’s Someone” does boast an original called “Frankenstein” (no points for guessing whose side Antony is on). The four-song You Are My Sister continues the band’s fascination with shadowy genders. The brilliant title song features Boy George; this track, unlike the others, was included on the second album.
I Am a Bird Now has better songs, tighter arrangements, and more haunted vocal experimentation than the earlier work. Reed, Devendra Banhart and Rufus Wainwright cheer up the proceedings as well. There are horns that blare, a more soulful attempt at writing actual songs and production that is clean and crisp. Antony actually seems to be seeking connections here, not writing poetry suited for headstones. He’s continental, almost jaunty, as his musical landscapes, once flat, isolated or horizontal, become friendly and humane. The bald solipsism of the first album (“Don’t punish me / For wanting your love inside of me / And I find Hitler in my heart / From the corpses flowers grow”) has been transmuted into something less shocking, almost human, here: “You are my sister, we were born / So innocent/ So full of need / There were times we were friends but times I was so cruel / Each night I’d ask for you to watch me as I sleep / I was so afraid of the night.” To be sure, the S&M rough stuff is here as well (“And I feel your fists / And I know it’s out of love / And I feel the whip / And I know it’s out of love”) but the dissonance has been calmed. Earlier, Antony was a streetwalker “all dolled up like Christ”; here he’s serene, at piece with androgyny and solitude: “‘Cause I’m a bird girl / And the bird girls go to heaven.” We see him in us, we who maintain little girl dreams and masculine awkwardness. On swooning songs like “My Lady Story,” “Fistful of Death” and “Free at Last,” Antony and the talented Johnsons brilliantly evoke the grandeur and dolor of cocktail hour ennui.