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I Am a Bird Now | Antony and the Johnsons, 2005

I Am a Bird Now | Antony and the Johnsons, 2005

Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me when I die…” One of modern music’s most powerful opening lines –delivered in a truly arresting voice that echoes elements of Nina Simone and Bryan Ferry- sets the ground rules for the next half-hour: leave now if you were expecting easy listening. The second album from the band fronted by British-born, New York-based Antony Hegarty is fragile to the point of disintegration, a harrowing yet haunting experience. “Majestic while confronting mortal fears,” said The Guardian.

Staring out blankly from the album cover is Candy Darling, a pre-op transsexual who found fleeting fame in the films of Andy Warhol. That Velvet Underground lineage continues with a poignant cameo on “Fistful of Love” from Lou Reed (joining by Boy George, Devendra Banhart, and Rufus Wainwright). More importantly, the sleeve emphasizes one oh Hegarty’s recurrent preoccupations: sexual identity. “One day I’ll grow up, I’ll know a womb within me,” he sings, imagining a life as a woman, on “For Today I am a Boy”.

Hardly a recipe for mainstream acclaim, you might think. But just awaited, with the album hitting the Top Five on the UK after winning the 2005 Mercury Prize. That surprise triumph was sandwiched between the angular indie guitars of Franz Ferdinand in 2004 and Arctic Monkeys in 2006. Those bands probably tell you more about the musical landscape of Britain at that moment in time, but the unexpected success of I am a Bird Now was a sign that, for a while at least, there was room for something decidedly—and defiantly—different. [Chris Bryans, from 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die].

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