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Album Review: Stark And Elegant Protest From Anohni’s “HOPELESSNESS”

Recent years have seen many critics beg the question, what happened to the protest song? But on the other hand, politically charged music has also been seen as having a resurgence as the industry strives towards a conscience. No matter which viewpoint you subscribe to, the debut album, HOPELESSNESS, from Anohni is indisputably one of the sharpest, starkest and most elegant protest records of recent years.

The first full length from Anohni, this is of course not anywhere near her first ever release. As the latest incarnation of Antony Hegarty, the singer and composer best known for her award winning outfit, Antony & The Johnsons. She is no stranger to social commentary; a transsexual woman, ecofeminist and ecowarrior, she advocated for queer culture and identity early in her career. The heartrendingly beautiful release Hope There’s Someone addressed the experiences of what she called the “lost generation”, who had an early, tragic familiarity with HIV-related deaths.

Environmental and world concerns are also themes that have run through Anohni’s writing since her career as Antony. Drawing parallels between queer identity, politics and the green movement in her 2009 album, The Crying Light, was an unprecedented viewpoint, and something that has remained a constant in her work.

As her first release under the moniker Anohni, HOPELESSNESS holds lungfuls of undisguised mourning for our world, articulate accusations and a beautiful empathy. Addressing the destruction of the natural world, resource greedy capitalism and the scars left by human violence, the record has a clear, blunt honesty that spurns metaphor or elliptical references. Working with co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, the album sets Anohni’s commentary against a backdrop where EDM meets an orchestral film score, taking Antony’s chamber pop and working it into something darker and heavier – something more resounding for this release.

Crying out against the dangers of climate change, and the callous attitudes of humanity towards the dangers to our ecosystems, the apocalyptic 4 DEGREES ushers in Anohni’s stance as an ecofeminist. A vast production that stands between electro pop and a cinematic orchestra, looming bass lines and urgent strings lend both menace and an idea of salvation. Deep drums introduce the song, and bring to mind Anohni’s longstanding inspiration, Kate Bush. Perhaps literally inspired the opening to Hounds Of Love, interestingly 4 DEGREES also recalls the worrying fantasy of Bush’s Experiment IV.

Lyrically, 4 DEGREES has the uncompromising certainty of a narrative villain; “I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil” resounds as the early refrain. There is no shying away from exactitude as she cries “And all those rhinos and all those big mammals / I wanna see them lying, crying in the fields.” Anohni’s ethereal vocals have never lacked power or soul, charged with emotion rather than volume.

Questioning the disconnection between man and earth throughout the album, Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth? narrates this rhetorical question. Laden with pulsing synths and tropical melodies, there is a brighter feel to the instrumentation and less of the brooding heaviness of 4 DEGREES. The Future Feminism manifesto as put forward by Anohni propounds the masculine identity as disassociating itself from the natural world, while the feminine holds a stronger connection. Bringing together the sense of injury as felt by a female consciousness, as a patriarchal society removes humanity from the earth, with a kind of anarchic disavowal of that society, she disowns the future of mankind as she sings “I don’t want your future / I’m never, I’m never coming home.

Working with the familiar concept of humanity as a virus on the earth in title track Hopelessness, Anohni assumes the sensibility of a mother. Another common theme throughout the album, making the female connection once more, but also expressing a very particular grief – that of the maternal figure who no longer recognises her progeny, as they destroy her and what she holds dear. Hopelessness holds a lighter form on production; an electronic ambience that moves into something deeper as the track progresses. It builds to a finale which verges on dub, recognisable HudMo territory.

HOPELESSNESS speaks to degrees of human suffering, as well as the environmental impact that our species has. Tracks like Violent Men and Crisis mourn the state of humanity, the former once more from a mother’s viewpoint. The production here moves towards less familiar territory, disparate influences move together perfectly, but slightly uncomfortably. A kind of gamelan or templar percussion holds a meditative feel, broken into by an Indian inspired sample, the whole interrupted by a rumbling interlude of static-ridden bass.

A prayer-like apology, Crisis is a delicate, electronic dream which poses stark questions.  A near-ballad, Anohni’s soft croon becomes a soulful kind of ecstasy as she cries out a heartfelt, but ultimately futile apology. Much of HOPELESSNESS is concerned with the post 9/11 America, particularly the resulting warfare. Crisis asks the questions that soldiers are taught not to entertain; “Crisis, If I killed your father / With a drone bomb / How would you feel?

Drone Bomb Me – by ANOHNI from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

The concept of this kind of detached violence appears more than once throughout the album. Opening with Drone Bomb Me, Anohni unleashes what she describes as “a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a 9-year-old girl whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb,…She is kind of looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.” A tragic love story as told through Anohni’s lullaby vocals and ambient electronica.

Perhaps one of the darkest, and most brutal, moments on HOPELESSNESS is the menacing, droning Obama. With absolutely no kind of encoding on her lyrics, or the title, the track is a dirge-like litany of disappointment. Contrasting her familiar crooning tone, Anohni delivers a looming monotone as she describes how Obama failed to deliver on the dream he seemed to promise. Calling out drone warfare, the NSA controversy and his actions regarding whistleblowers, the disappointment is palpable; accusing the president of becoming what he once stood against.

Cut with irritating radio static, it isn’t clear if the ominous Obama is a death march or the inexorable voice of justice. Deep instrumentation devolves into reverberating bass and bounce, as laser effects ripple across the top of the mix and a hymnal-like chorus herald some kind of retribution. Ending on a sombre, melodic piano, synonymous with tragedy and aftermath in the language of film score.

You have never heard the word “execution” delivered with so much aspiration as on Anohni’s track of the same name, twisting the much lauded, yet critically collapsed, idea of “The American Dream,” to mean death and destruction. The synth heavy production on Execution almost touches on a style of corporate, motivational music. As such, the irony is tangible.

A comment on the constant surveillance inherent in today’s society, Watch Me becomes and almost lustful love affair with a watchful state. Subtle heartbeat bass and beats sit underneath vast, resonating tones and stunning synths. Turning ‘Big Brother’ into ‘Daddy’, there’s a cynical sensuality to the refrain “I know you love me, because you’re always watching me.” Dropping into a slow beat euphoria, this is one of the most glorious moments of production on the album. Especially coupled with the wonderful irony of watching the watchers.

A slight stranger on the album, I Don’t Love You Anymore has less of an overt agenda. Though I would hazard a guess at another comment on western society, specifically the reception afforded trans individuals. A personal theme for Anohni, instrumentally I Don’t Love You Anymore is also a slight return to her former style of chamber pop. A pertinent subject for the singer, after she penned a forthright letter in reaction to her exclusion from performing at the Academy Awards.

Image via MarieClaire

Image via MarieClaire

Anohni alludes to the idea of the American Dream once more in the closing track, Marrow. Bringing together her resonant themes of capitalism, the environment and ecofeminism, she illustrates the world as an exploited woman. Whose body is drained and mined for resources, while what is taken is replaced with toxic reparations. Accompanied by industrial beats and a melodic line that worries at the song, lilting vocals come up against these with the refrain “We are all Americans now.Marrow is a decidedly sober ending, and a sad prophecy, to the thought provoking sobriety and beauty of HOPELESSNESS.

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