This Antony and the Johnsons article was written by Jack Roe, a GIGsoup contributor
It probably will not have escaped your attention that one tried and tested approach to music and indeed wider cultural critique is to place an artifact within its context. Talk is dominated by its influences and collective references. Its a useful trick for all sorts of reasons but not the least because it helps to communicate to the audience something about which they may well remain ignorant (why read a review of an album you’ve already heard after all?). Invite the reader to talk around something rather than about it. As with everything else though, there are limitations to the shortcut.
Every now and again its possible to find something so pure and astonishing that it defies parallels, stands proud and alone and undiminished by association. That’s the level you approach when listening to 2005’s Mercury Prize winning I am a Bird Now, the second album from Antony and the Johnsons. The album was not created within a cultural vacuum, nothing is, therefore it’s not impossible to make comparisons between this and other music, the pomp and power of Nina Simone being an obvious touchstone. The point is that when discussing something of this quality such comparisons rather miss the point. But before the music, the controversy. Its true the Mercury panel stretched their own rules to include this album for consideration seeing as the band are in (almost) every respect American, and this fact did not escape the attention of the music press at the time, with contemporary critics suggesting that the band were not due consideration for the shortlist, let alone to actually win the thing.
The simple fact is that this is an astonishing album, poignant, poetic and powerful. This is music at its most transformative, from its haunting death hued opener Hope There’s Someone through to its soaring and emotive pay off Bird Guhl. There is a visual element to this album, not the least its cover; a photo of counterculture icon and transgender actress Candy Darling on her deathbed. But there is a widescreen, cinematic element to the music here, probably best expressed on the track Fistful of Love, introduced with a vocal turn by Lou Reed no less. This is an album that transports and fixates, that moves and inspires, that reminds you what it was you found so irresistible about music in the first place and any institution founded to award and raise the profile of the best of music, UK based or otherwise, simply could not afford to ignore an album like this. In short, cancel whatever you had planned next and devote an hour of your life to this album, you will not regret it.
And to believe it was joined on the shortlist that year by efforts from the likes of Kaiser Chiefs and Hard-Fi.