Monday, May 16, 2016

Anohni – Hopelessness

Anohni – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

If the title didn’t tip you off, this is not the feel-good record of the year. Quite the opposite. Anohni—formerly known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons—has a few things to get off her chest, starting with the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s our own damn fault.

For an album seeped in anger and loathing, a lot of it is directed not directly at the forces of darkness, but at our own collective apathy. “4 Degrees”—about a recent report that warned that, with current carbon emission rates, global temperatures would rise by four degrees by century’s end—finds Anohni snarling that, with current carbon emission rates, “It’s only four degrees … I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see animals die in the trees.”

She’s not one to mince words. Elsewhere on the album, she adopts the voice of a young girl whose family dies from American drone bombs, or mock celebrates capital punishment by exclaiming, over a beautiful melody, “Execution / it’s an American dream!” She then rattles off the not-so-esteemed company who, like the U.S., execute an unusually large number of their citizens: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia. And in perhaps the best post-Snowden protest song, “Watch Me,” she takes a Big Brother metaphor as far as she can: “Daddy I know you love me because you’re always watching me.”

Ah, but surely the lovely, if avant-garde, torch song balladry we knew from Antony and the Johnsons lends some beauty to this madness, no? Or perhaps the disco liberation she achieved on guest spots with Hercules and Love Affair? Sorry. With her new name, Anohni also has new collaborators: abrasive electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, who prefer white noise and distortion to a 4/4 beat. The music here is as discomforting as the lyrics; the only pretty moments come during contrition on the last third of the album: “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?”, “Crisis” (about a litany of American foreign policy atrocities, with the chorus, “I’m sorry”), and the title track, which borrows from Agent Smith in The Matrix when Anohni asks, “How did I become a virus?”

Most scathing, however, is “Obama.” The current U.S. president has had an easy ride from musicians and artists during his years in power, but Anohni isn’t having it. She remembers how the world wept tears of joy when the charming man was elected, but that same man is now responsible for surveillance, executive-ordered death by drones, and punishing whistleblowers. Much of the song is Anohni incanting Obama’s name over a distorted dirge, a lament for lost hope, an indictment of betrayed promises. 

Anohni has spent her career having people fawn over her voice; mentor Lou Reed, not known to be a sappy man, called it that of “an angel.” That it is. But there were many moments on previous records when she affected gospel-tinged melisma, sometimes to distracting ends. (And then there were her duets with Bjork, which counterintuitively seemed to bring out the worst in both incredibly talented vocalists.) Here, however, Anohni is powerful and on point and has never sounded better. Small wonder: this music, these lyrics, require a certainty and conviction that leaves no room for any ornamental excess. She sets her targets; she scores direct hits. (May 12)

Stream: “4 Degrees,” “Execution,” “Obama”

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