By Kristian Brito, Contributing Writer
Five years removed from her last project as frontperson of chamber-pop collective Antony and the Johnsons, Anohni has manifestly changed gears. Dropping her birth name for its ambiguous echo, adopting feminine pronouns, and teaming up with experimental producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, she’s created her solo debut “Hopelessness.” She describes it as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth.”
Left behind are the hushed tones and personal subtleties of her previous work. They’re replaced by an unmistakably political frame she’s taken up since the project’s announcement: lead single “4 Degrees” is a nightmarish climate change epic characterized as “a brutal attempt to hold myself accountable;” follow-up single “Drone Bomb Me” flips the Obama administration’s deadly aerial drone program into masochistic fantasy seen from the eyes of an orphaned Afghani girl (“blow my head off”). Her response to the abrupt cancellation of her 2016 Grammy performance was a widely-read essay critiquing trans visibility in the capitalist media. And so on.
Such acts of political consciousness, however admirable, also raise flags—can overwrought didacticism really be what the doctor ordered for 2016? As popular music continues to splinter into increasingly unmapped cultural and technological spaces, what use can there be for an old-fashioned manifesto of articulate protest pop and think-piece activism? On “Hopelessness,” Anohni seems very conscious of this question, which after all isn’t a new one—the problem of “protest music” has always centered around the task of transmuting political anger into accessible art without reducing it to the level of mere subject matter or sentimental cheese. It boils down to asking: does any possibility remain for a new musical vocabulary which might somehow preserve the shock and epiphany of the political as an indivisible part of the art? In Anohni’s voice —an amorphous, oceanic, trembling force unlike anything else in contemporary pop—she wills one such vocabulary into existence.
Hidden in some secret space between modern R&B’s coddled auto-tune and pop’s emotive sparkle, that voice swims around in a watery ambiguity, treating recognizable conventions of vocal cadence and tone like rough guidelines.Within the context of her delivery, the old [politics/arts] binary is dismantled. In its place, we’re faced with displays of indeterminate emotional trauma which seem to open up entirely new affective spaces simply by rearing their heads. She leaves her words to flounder with an ominous severity—they linger, they sting, they catalogue innumerable horrors. Animals burn, drones murder, government voyeurs stalk, idealisms collapse, and we standby complicit in the disaster. It’s a thrilling vision of apocalypse; an alien territory that’s actually our own, try as we might to deny it.
And then there’s the surrounding music. The real revelation here is the way “Hopelessness” bombards us with an (enormously suggestive) cross of Mother Nature’s warm embrace with electronic music’s cold sheen, then drowns the pair in vocal melismatics evocative of nothing so much as a whale raised in captivity on a steady diet of corrupted Destiny’s Child MP3s. None of this would get off the ground without the unclassifiable production work of HudMo and OPN, whose disparate styles are seamlessly distilled through Anohni’s woozily monochromatic anger while broaching a kind of pop experimentalism that feels genuinely new—simultaneously clean and industrial, architectural and sumptuous, impersonal and affectively devastating, it’s new ground for every party involved.
Ultimately, the record leaves one feeling undeniably roused not despite its dark subject matter but because of it. Its treatises unfurl into breezily melodramatic, danceable, and texturally playful spaces for political thought. Even the funereal dirge that is “Obama”—a crawling, suffocated track in which the president’s ideological failures are excoriated without restraint—is a formal delight, pairing OPN’s eclectic grotesquerie with Anohni’s wonderfully unusual gothic vocals. As in all successful protest art, Hopelessness acts as a negation of its own despair: outside the impasses of daily life and political oppression, there are always new forms of creative resistance to be discovered.