The task of choosing the musical backdrop for one’s final send-off is a daunting one. Many questions present themselves: Why further burden such an emotionally weighty occasion? Would making light of the situation go over poorly? Do you play something familiar that’s likely to move everyone in attendance, or attempt to work in a hidden gem/personal favorite? Of course, all of those concerns hardly matter in comparison to much more pressing ones. For instance, what could possibly be a fitting way to cap off a human being’s time on Earth?
The answer, for me, is, and has been ever since I heard it for the very first time, Antony and the Johnsons’ “Hope There’s Someone”, off of their indelible second album, I Am a Bird Now. To say that death permeates the 2005 Mercury Prize-winning album, which features the likes of Lou Reed, Devendra Banhart and Boy George, would be a major understatement; The album cover features a morose-looking old photo of actress/Warhol Superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed, and all of the tracks speak to death or loss in some way. Surprisingly, I Am a Bird Now is certainly not a sad album. Instead of wallowing into the sort of black-clad misery that many pieces of art on the topic of death seem to fall into, I Am a Bird Now seeks to reconcile with death, expressing a certain joy in the freedom that comes with it, via key themes of hope and freedom.
“Hope There’s Someone”, the album’s first track, is a sublime piece of music, one so jam-packed full of emotion that it’s literally difficult to listen through. Frontman Antony Hegarty’s warbling croon, a point of much contention among the singer’s detractors, is the centerpiece here, gracing the first couple of verses over soft, delicate piano chords. The melancholy in Hegarty’s voice is especially audible as it builds in urgency, along with the piano, as he comes in with the chorus. Hegarty’s confidence seems to grow with each passing verse, even as the lyrics grow increasingly heartrending.
In the song’s final lines, he seems almost happy at the prospect of freedom, as he repeats the song’s first lines: “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me. When I die, will I go? Hope there’s someone who’ll set my heart free, nice to hold when I’m tired.” Hegarty then pushes the song into a moving coda, his slammed piano chords oddly expressive, as they swell and swirl around the listener. As things finally reach a gentle calm and the song draws to a close, however, the exceptional vocalist lets out a most heart-wrenching cry of anguish that closes things out in spectacular, albeit bleak, fashion.
Antony Hegarty’s unparalleled voice and lyrics meditate on the metaphysical longing we all feel for something, anything, and work to make “Hope There’s Someone” more than just another song on the often-sappy subject of death and dying.