Madonna's longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg recently expressed her desire for Boy George to start writing songs again. It might seem like a compliment, but she was simply reacting to yet another one of the '80s icon's barbs against her client, this one involving the supposed hypocrisy of Madonna being both a devout Kabbalist and a supporter of the gay community. While Liz might not have gotten her wish exactly, George is still making music—he lends his voice to "You Are My Sister," a solemn anthem about gay camaraderie on Antony and the Johnsons' second album I Am A Bird Now, the cover of which is a famous photograph of drag artist Candy Darling, the late Andy Warhol protégé whom Madonna reportedly wants to play on the big screen. And if those aren't enough associations for you, the whole of I Am A Bird Now is a lot like the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says," the song written about Darling in 1969 by Lou Reed, who guests on Antony's brass-filled "Fistful Of Love."
After finding his way to New York and performing at after-hours cabarets at downtown spots like The Pyramid in the mid-'90s, singer-songwriter Antony toured the world with Reed, where he perfected his own rendition of "Candy Says." There's a shot of St. Mark's Place circa "Candy Says" in the 1970 film Trash, directed by another Warhol protégé, Paul Morrissey (coincidentally, the man responsible for Warhol's involvement in music promotion, which led to the discovery of the Velvet Underground in the first place), and it's in this New York—or, hell, even the New York of Madonna and Culture Club's post-54 heyday—that Antony belongs. Listening to the carefully orchestrated Baroque pop of I Am A Bird Now and that quivering, timeless vocal, it's difficult to imagine Antony walking down today's more commercialized St. Mark's, what with all the strip-mall eateries, tourist-trap sunglass huts, and suburban NYU transplants.
Just as Reed's "Candy Says" humanized the life of a drag queen in the drug-hazy Warhol workshop of the late '60s ("I've come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this world"), I Am A Bird Now gives a face (not to mention a voice—ethereal, hypnotizing, heartbreaking) to gender ambiguity with songs like "My Lady Story" and "For Today I Am A Boy." "Man Is The Baby" tackles more universal human struggles but is no less personal or conflicted—with its cadence of organ, drums, and tense, pulsating bass and a stirring, string-laden denouement ("Forgive me/Let live me/Set my spirit free"), it's the most heartbreaking song I've heard since Damien Rice's "Cold Water." Many of the album's songs are built around one such equally anguished lyric: "I hope there's someone who will take care of me when I die" ("Hope There's Someone"); "I collect upon my body the memories of your devotion" ("Fistful Of Love," an old-fashioned love song about masochistic pleasure); and, more simple, "Mama, help me to live" (sung by friend Rufus Wainwright on "What Can I Do?").
Antony's voice is instantly inimitable—he makes the kind of music that compels you to stop talking and start listening. The mind tries to place the vibrato (like that of Nina Simone but more feminine), the swooning diva falsetto (similar to Jeff Buckley but more vulnerable), but his voice is truly unique and, despite the unfortunate aphorism of his band's name and the implications of the album's title, Antony the artist is ultimately sexless. In many ways, it's the listener who provides the gender. I Am A Bird Now takes us on a morbid journey from confusion to comfort (Boy George's performance is like that of an old queen taking a new one under his wing), and from the beginning of death to its quiet, ephemeral end. It's all surprisingly uplifting, almost in a giddy way, as Antony—or Candy on her deathbed?—goes "Spiralling" (along with another unique New York contemporary, Devendra Banhart, who makes Antony sound butch) and is finally "Free At Last," flying like a "bird girl." Call it a gay fantasia on sexual and spiritual themes.