Antony and the Johnsons' new record, I Am a Bird Now, is an easy record to dislike, primarily for its two most prominent features: Antony's voice, and the androgynous subject matter.
First, the voice. This will be an alienating factor for many listeners. Much like Joanna Newsom (but in a completely different way), Antony has an absolutely brilliant but incredibly difficult voice. It is certainly informed by many sources, with soul and gospel seeming to be chief among them. It is an instrument capable of emotiveness on a level few others can reach, and Antony is aware of it; all of the songs here are focused entirely on pure emotion. And, that can be a good and a bad thing; at times it is gloriously affecting (the opener, "Hope There's Someone," and "Spiralling"), but at other times it seems overly melodramatic ("Man is the Baby"). But, beyond all this, the voice is simply grandiloquent in a way that might turn off many indie listeners used to vocal minimalism. You'll either love the drama or be turned off by it. I feel a little of both, depending on my mood, but I can hardly deny how captivating Antony is as a vocalist.
The subject matter is another possible turn-off. Don't get me wrong, I am not close-minded and uncomfortable about gender confusion; it's a perfectly viable and interesting topic for songwriting. But, it does, to some degree, make it hard to identify with the artist, if you haven't experienced such problems yourself. But, Antony does an admirable job of making these problems provide the basis for explorations on universal topics of rebirth and transcendence, particularly through the bird analogy hinted at in the title of the album, and the album's beautiful closer, "Bird Gurl." Of particular note is "For Today I Am a Boy," for its glorious acceptance of a life of confusion: "One day I'll grow up, and be a beautiful woman/One day I'll grow up, and be a beautiful girl/But for today, I am a child/For today I am a boy." Antony is not afraid to rejoice, which is sometimes rare in art of all forms dealing with gender confusion, and it is truly refreshing.
So, do I like the record? It's really hard to say; at times, when the thing hits me with full force, there's not much else that can compare, and yet there are times when I think it's just melodramatic silliness. In general, the former outweigh the latter, and I am of the opinion that Antony and his Johnsons have crafted a heartfelt, original record, worthy of being mentioned among the best albums of the year.