As an androgynous performance artist who sprang out of New York’s club scene, Antony (he lost the surname a long time ago) may seem an unlikely pretender to the tones of Nina Simone, but with I Am A Bird Now, the British-born singer is making an excellent go of it. With the Johnsons, an expandable group who take their name from Marsha P Johnson, the drag-queen and gay-rights legend, Antony has honed the music right down. If his untitled début 1998 album tended towards the florid, then Bird is poised and elegant. Antony’s subject matter – gender, loss, family – remains the same, but this time there’s a resilience and strength in his material that defines the true torch song.
This is a rich album. Antony’s voice waivers between a Simone contralto and a fluting Jimmy Scott falsetto, but it also has its own hue. He gets to duet with his hero, Boy George, on the sumptuous ‘You Are My Sister’. Elsewhere, Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and new folkie Devandra Banhardt make sizeable contributions. The unusual is never distant on I Am A Bird Now, and it doesn’t come much closer than with an intriguing little spiritual, introduced with some Morse Code bleeps, titled ‘Free at Last’. The voice, if not the bleeps, belong to one Dr Julia Yasuda, who, if the press is to believed, is a female-identifying hermaphrodite mathematician from Japan.
And why not? With songs like ‘Bird Gerhl’ or ‘Today I Am A Boy’, this album’s about transcendence and the Johnsons, whose orchestrations take their cue from an unadorned hymnal quality – reinforce this message.