ANOHNI Hopelessness Rough Trade
The idea that there’s no political music any more doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Sleaford Mods’ snarling, electronic punk paints a lurid picture of Cameron’s Britain; Kendrick Lamar’s jagged soul provides the unofficial soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement. But more generally, there has been an undeniable shift away from the literal, explicit engage- ment with the ‘big issues’ that defined the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Perhaps it’s because of the toxic legacy of cack-handed musical disasters like Live Aid, or the general co-opting of creativity and ‘alternative’ culture by a predatory corporate mainstream. Perhaps it is a good thing, and musicians have become more sophisticated, choosing conceptual commentary over heart-on-sleeve histrionics. Or maybe it’s almost impossible to make a straight-faced comment about anything in our current cultural climate: trolls will snipe; memes will mock; and political potency dissolves into the digital winds. Credible, authentic pop music that tackles major social questions head-on, without falling into mawkish melodrama or half-arsed punditry is rare, and precious – and Anohni (the artist who formerly made music as Antony & The Johnsons, in collaboration here with Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke) has produced an album that pulls it off and then some.
Hopelessness is beautiful and disturbing in equal measures. Beginning with the coyly cut-throat Drone Bomb Me, expectations for the album are ruthlessly established. Anohni’s gnawing, soulful voice has always sounded best when juxtaposed with electronic production (as on Hercules & Love Affair’s debut album). But here, the emotional intensity of her earlier work is welded, uncompromisingly, to a roll call of contemporary political and social dilemmas. A brutal eulogy of Obama’s US Presidency is actually a bizarrely comprehensive analysis of two terms of Presidential power, Anohni’s simmering growl set to a spluttering, sinister lock-step beat. Perhaps even starker still is Crisis, with its distinctly unrhetorical question: If I killed your mother with a drone bomb, how would you feel?
By comparison, the bombastic, breathless 4 Degrees sounds almost jaunty – although it is in fact a demonically euphoric lament to a ravished, climate changed world. And even on an album stuffed full of unflinching, unnerving political commentary, this stands out as something unique: a contemporary artist who has managed to engage – explicitly, consciously, and literally – with climate change, which is otherwise treated with a deafening silence by contemporary musical culture.
The level of directness and intensity on display throughout Hopelessness is something that is usually reserved for ‘personal’ issues: love, loss, longing. These individual emotional states offer a platform for literal lyricism, and occasionally the subject matter veers into this more traditional territory (I don’t love you anymore). But it is the searing social analysis, which somehow transcends sloganeering to emerge as a powerful political critique, that defines the album. The production – as you’d expect – is consistently outstanding, providing a platform for Anohni that alternates between blunt, sinister rhythms and gentle, ghostly melodies. But it is the don’t-look-away lyricism that cuts provocatively through, adding up to an astonishing album that sounds fresh, intense and utterly compelling.