WHEN ANTONY and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now won this year’s Mercury Prize, he brought a world of outsiders into the light. His songs blur gender borders, referencing both the Eighties sexual subversives he idolised as a child – Marc Almond, Boy George – and the transgressive New York demi-monde of Andy Warhol, Candy Darling and Lou Reed.
Antony writes tales of transformation, of men to boys and boys to girls. He himself has changed nationalities (leaving England for America aged 10) and appearances, looking ghostly and glamorous in photos, belying his burly frame. But the pain of AIDS-era New York is one constant, expressed in his high, remarkable voice: gay blues, by any other name.
It’s a far cry from Manhattan to this grand Midlands hall. But the classical ambience, and an unexpectedly middle-aged crowd, who cheer every song from ‘I Am a Bird Now’ to ‘The Echo’, suit Antony well. There’s a soaring, choral, melodramatic quality to his voice, with few current pop equivalents. A mixture of almost camp quavering and faithful fervour, he waits until several songs in, on ‘Everything is New’, to briefly unleash its full force. ‘For Today, I Am a Child’ also nears take-off, as he pounds out heavy chords on his piano, and dreams of a puberty that will leave him feminised. Otherwise, he’s jazzy, almost improvisational. The Johnsons, for the most part a dolorous string section, add weight to this scat-like flow.
Only the lyrics, at first, give clues to the deeper darkness, and desire for redemption, that fill Antony’s head. “Cut off my fingers, I will grow back like a starfish,” he claims on ‘Cripple and the Starfish’.
On ‘Always a Loneliness’, by legendary, late blind street singer Moondog, the sense of sadness underlying such hope is almost dirge-like. He is an exceptional interpretative singer. Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Guests’ becomes a dreamy folk epic. Lou Reed’s ‘Candy Says’ touches the cruelty of Reed’s world, but Antony’s almost pitiful wish for kindness softens it.
Antony’s own ‘Hope There’s Someone’, near the end, shows what he keeps in reserve. His piano notes swell like stormy seas, and his voice soars effortlessly, allowing us a glimpse of something truly wild.
© Nick Hasted, The Independent, 2 April 2009