Saturday, 30 November 2013

Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now


I Am a Bird Now was released in 2005, seven years following Antony Hegarty's self-titled debut album which was met with mixed reviews. Hegarty's sophomore album takes every soulful aspect of baroque pop, and combines it with Indie Pop - to create something spectacular on the ear. An album packed full of guests with songs about gender, family, love, loss, and depression had to be well received by the media. Following release, Antony and the Johnsons progressed by appearing on shows such as Jools Holland and attending some of the bigger festivals. This album eventually won the prestigious Mercury Prize, given by the leading figures of the British music industry, which is seen as an honour and a way of commercial success - though Hegarty and his team behind I Am a Bird Now never needed the success.

Hegarty takes delicate piano playing and throws in very light percussion with beautiful string work attached at the hip. The strings stand out, they really add to the melancholic, sad mood which this music portrays throughout the 35 minute duration. "Hope There's Someone" starts the album with a melodic piano, met with Hegarty's strong vocals - his typical high pitched singing, using his voice as an instrument. The song reaches climax with a heart thumping change in progression and tempo, where the piano riff furiously increases speed and volume - a rapid change from the opening segments. The piano playing is an arpeggio, creating this misty dark ambient atmosphere for Hegarty's vocals to sit on top, raising the bar above and beyond. This is a perfect album opener, a true stunning piece of instrumentality and minimalism to create a pin dropping sound once it's all over. "Hope There's someone" gives off a sad, lonely feel, and it's just simply a beautiful track on I Am a Bird Now.

"My Lady Story" is a deeply personal track connected solely to Hegarty as a human being. If you didn't know, Hegarty is a transgender. It has a jazz influenced vocal, with very tight instrumentation. One thing that's always stood out to me is the flute, it runs with the strings, but has a bigger impact on the latter half of the track - where the sound has been elevated. This track is full of tiny percussion pieces and melodic strings with a small emphasis on the upright bass. Then there's the short third track "For Today I Am a Boy". Its alike the opening track but with a bigger emphasis on the vocal and structure. Hegarty's layered vocal sings rings around the piano, splitting off from the accompanying percussion. The percussion picks up in the latter stages, and everything becomes louder with a repeated refrain: "For today I am a child, for today I am a boy." 

"Man Is the Baby" follows with sweet string accompaniment and a sound bass riff. The percussion is again pieced together rather well; it's not overly heard - but sticks out as a lounge / lobby type of arrangement. Soft strings and a high noted piano riff accompany Hegarty's desperate vocal to create a hollow track with a soul sitting down on a cold, dusty piano. I Am a Bird Now starts to become clear of its emotive response towards the back end of "Man Is the Baby". Its light strings sooth the listener, with a thumping bass riff creating a sorrow mood, one which Hegarty basks in as his sophomore album continues down a one way path to utter devastation and sadness.

I Am a Bird Now's splitting track is immensely beautiful - titled "You Are My Sister". It begins the flow of guests, this one being famed Brit of colours Boy George, who sings the chorus. Its chorus is the key to the track, as cliché as that sounds. There’s a great vocal by Boy George with pure coherence between George and Hegarty. The chorus is strong, which leads to a splendid ending following an elevated string pattern: "You are my sister, and I love you, may all of your dreams come true." Although it reads basic, Boy George adds great effect with pure emotion and care in his short refrain - and nobody could deliver it better.

Rufus Wainwright sings lead vocals on "What Can I Do?", who is accompanied by pianist Jason Hart with backing vocals by Hegarty - which doesn't have too much of an effect on the song, but they're heard well and work with the strings and percussion. This is under two minutes long, with an eerie atmosphere and depressive state of mind through the tongue of Wainwright. This is certainly one of the high points on the album, with mellow instrumentation, and a cello that stands out along with Hart's piano playing on the left side of the track. It makes for an easy listening warm-up to the album's magnum opus. "Fistful of Love" starts with a Lou Reed spoken word, which begins Hegarty's best lyricism on the album: "We live together in a photograph of time." This track features percussion by ex-Jeff Buckley musicians Parker Kindred - and guitar work by Lou Reed himself. The guitar makes an unusual appearance here, and "Fistful of Love" is one of only two appearances of guitar on I Am a Bird Now. It flows with the high, hard hitting string work and brass. Hegarty's vocal strengthens as the track progresses, reminiscent of a Nina Simone structured jazz ballad. He manages to blend his strong vocal with the energetic percussion and heart-warming trumpets. This track is by my favourite on the album, it's painfully beautiful, with everything working in unison. It doesn't sound messy or over produced, it's a perfect track in my opinion - and the guitar wizard Lou Reed only helps Hegarty and co create a sound worthy of Mercury Prize win.

The final three tracks are just as sad and heartfelt as the previous seven, they just don't have as much energy or density as the 'bigger' tracks on the album. "Spiralling" features a vocal by Devendra Banhart, and slow bass playing. It's very melodic and cold, this is a winter album after all. The final piece of string work on this track reminds me of many dramatic soundtracks. "Free At Last" features the Morse code, and a repeated piano riff by Hegarty - something his audience have grown to love. The strings enter and pass, as a post-rock feel enters. The vocal is very quirky by someone called Julia Yasuda - it's not very interesting, it just leads to "Bird Gehrl" very well.

Finales need to be something memorable and worthy, so the album isn't forgotten. "Bird Gehrl" is very sinister track, with is glorified in impressive strings - sounding far more raw and enthusiastic than any other track on the album. "Bird Gerhrl" rises as it progresses, with increased percussion and bass with Hegarty giving an emotive vocal, worthy of a final track. The piano ends the album just as it began the album, very delicate and masked in delay. It's one of the stronger tracks on the album with a better structure than some - but still, it’s as emotionally powerful as it was in 2005.

So we have 10 peaceful, piano accompanied pop songs, with strong emotive vocals and beautiful string instrumentation. It's not a perfect album, but it's surely one of the best winter albums ever recorded, and one of 2005's best. Winning the Mercury Prize is meaningless unless you have something of worth to show within the industry. This album has everything worthy of commercial success; it has superb individual songs, and radio friendly lyricism. I Am a Bird Now is a truly remarkable album, which deserves the credit it received, and will get with accolades in the future. It's a dominating album in chamber pop, and one of the most sophisticated within the baroque pop genre. Hegarty sings his emotions away on I Am a Bird Now, and he does it so professionally and calm, that fans can instantly connect with what he has to say. The guests make the listening experience an even greater one, and having these big names never puts Hegarty out of the centre picture - as you would expect on say hip-hop albums. It's an Antony and the Johnsons album by heart, and by sound, one for the history books and future classics - as it is today.
~Eddie Gibson

9.1

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