Things are hard, so I am in the mood for sad, beautiful music. Happily, providence has sent me some. I have been listening obsessively to I Am A Bird Now, the latest from Antony and The Johnsons. Antony Hegarty’s music is a genre- (and gender-) bending amalgam of art song, doo-wop and gospel, all layered harmonies and pointed lyrics painted in a vocal palette filled with strange vibrato, piercing falsetto, tones at once rich and airy.
Antony’s public persona is vivid and distinct, but the details of his biography are less than sketchy. It appears he is interested in mystery. So I have no certain way of knowing that when he writes of childhood, as he often does on this album, he is telling his own story. It’s just that his lyrics have the truthful ring of personal pain transformed by art: “I accept and I collect upon my body/the memories of your devotion/I feel your fists/and I know it’s out of love.” Or this: “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me when I die, will I go.”
De gustibus non est disputandum and all that, so it might not be your cup of tea. But for me, it evokes Walter Pater’s famous assertion that “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” I take Pater’s use of the word “condition” as indicating the ability to meet us in all four worlds simultaneously: the physical world of our bodies and the worlds of feelings, of intellect and of spirit. When music itself fully occupies my senses and sensibilities in this way, it is thrilling: my body moves in time, vibrations coursing through my blood; my heart opens, the tears flow; the songs’ narrative content and complex sound patterns delight my mind; and my spirit soars, connecting me with spirit in all I perceive.
This is the last week before the High Holy Days, the start of the Jewish New Year. For the entire month of Elul, I have been working on my \cheshbon hanefesh\, the soul inventory that helps me to face the broken places in my life and take steps to mend them. I have been listening to Antony’s music almost every day while I take my walk by the water, marveling at the transformative power of art. More than that, though, I am astounded at the resilience of so many artists. Above the many hopes and fears surrounding the year to come, this is my desire: to match them in fashioning from the broken pieces of my life a thing of beauty and power, something to reach, console and delight a few of my fellow humans. I like the way Antony expresses my wish: “I’m a bird girl/and the bird girls can fly.” May it be so.