Review: Anohni, 'Hopelessness'
Now female-identified, Anohni was previously known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, a chamber music group that updates European art song traditions through contemporary subject matter on albums like 2005's Mercury Music Prize-winning I am a Bird Now. But if you've heard what the singer did with Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" or if you've danced to "Blind," a rapturous 2008 single Anohni co-wrote with and sung for Hercules and Love Affair, you might have found yourself craving for this exceptionally distinctive talent apply herself to more similarly immediate and direct material.
Anohni's done exactly that with arresting, nearly one-of-a-kind results on Hopelessness. Collaborating with Daniel Lopatin, the experimental electronic composer behind Oneohtrix Point Never, and Ross Birchard, a Glasgow DJ/producer who records as Hudson Mohawke, Anohni hasn't gone so far as to make a conventional pop album. Although Birchard has worked with Drake and Kanye West, he and Lopatin, together with Anohni, create dark moods and detailed textures not a million stylistic miles away from Antony and the Johnsons' austere beauty. But this time they're solely rendered via pointedly contemporary synthetic sounds positioned 180 stylistic degrees away from what we consider folk.
Hopelessness is, however, an unabashed protest album, and an exceedingly vivid, livid one at that. Like "Manta Ray," Anohni and J. Ralph's Oscar-nominated song for last year's documentary Racing Extinction, "4 Degrees" deals with global warming. But rather than taking the usual route of whistleblowing, this master voice of vulnerability aims to hasten the most universal insensitivity of all — ecocide. "I want to hear the dogs crying for water/I want to see the fish go belly-up in the sea," Anohni implores as drum machines clank and synths crescendo with symphonic fury. At a time when popular culture has just about lost its ability to shock, this truly is unnerving.
The horror doesn't stop here. "Drone Bomb Me" is sung from the perspective of an Afghan girl whose family has been slaughtered by U.S. drones. Alone, she dreams of being similarly annihilated, and so she croons to her faceless assassin as if it were a lover, "Let me be the one/The one that you choose from above." The groove is luridly woozy, like The Weeknd's hookers-and-Oxy-fueled slow jams, and the video, staring a weeping Naomi Campbell, further eroticizes her death wish in guerrilla couture. Meanwhile in "Watch Me," Anohni calls out to an omniscient Daddy who lords over his daughter a little too closely. "Watch me watching pornography," she coos. Of course, this father figure is our government, and the vibe is so voyeuristic and sleazy that when Anohni drops the punch line, "Watch my medical history," it still sounds like a come-on.
For "Obama," the singer drops all pretense of playfulness. Moaning at the bottom of her register like a Muslim man praying to Allah, she confronts our President as the album's most haunted and harrowing track sputters out digitized metal machine music. "We thought we had empowered the truth-telling envoy," she reflects before calling him out for spying, capital punishment and other trust violations. It's as every bit as heartbroken as "I Don't Love You Anymore," the sole apolitical song that nevertheless states the album's grievous through line, "You left me in a cage/My only defense was rage."
As its title suggests, Hopelessness is exceedingly somber in its topicality. The paradox is that it also contains some of Anohni's most alluring, accessible tunes, none more lilting than "Execution." "It's an American dream," she sighs again and again as if evoking the wide-eyed wonder of The Beach Boys while the synths tinkle out twinkling glimmers of starry light. Then she names some other nationalities that also murder without trial and spins this list into a tender countermelody earworm that would make Brian Wilson himself proud, then closes this gentle dance cut with yet another tune atop that. Hopelessness will no doubt inspire debate, but this much is certain: "Execution" and the rest signal Anohni's compositional rebirth.
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