Anohni and the Johnsons My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross
It really feels like a lot has gone down, globally, since Anohni dropped her last album Hopelessness. The international rise of the extreme right, runaway climate collapse, Covid and an ongoing political assault on the lives of women and trans people the world over. Her 2016 album (released about six weeks before the EU referendum and six months before the election of Donald Trump) was one of the most prescient and important albums of that year – a stark screed against the destructive impulses of the human race. The record famously eschewed Anohni’s theatrical cabaret pop, and her band the Johnsons, for a new sound of experimental electronics. Looking back, emotionally arresting songs like 4 Degrees and Drone Bomb Me sound like a last-ditch effort from an artist pleading with us all to wake the fuck up. Seven years on, with society still very much asleep at the wheel, what kind of music is left for such an artist to make?
Any social or environmental activist will tell you that their biggest enemy, aside from the oppression they seek liberation from, is burnout. When the fight becomes too strenuous, and the urge to throw in the towel too enticing, it’s easy to forget that hopelessness can also be a tool of subjugation. Anohni’s new album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, still deals with the themes that have embodied her work since the beginning – self-discovery, alienation, queerness, depression, catharsis – but focuses on the micro, versus Hopelessness’ macro. By comparison, the music is more organic and stripped down, the re-emergence of the Johnsons’ rock and soul-leaning instrumentation lending an emotional urgency comparable to Anohni’s 2005 classic, I Am a Bird Now.
The rawness and tenacity of the music feels like a call back to her early DIY days performing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it makes perfect sense that she brought the Johnsons back into the fray; for such a personal work, that link from past to present is essential. Although she has always composed and produced her own music, for My Back…, Anohni collaborated with the notable British soul producer Jimmy Hogarth, whose deft and buoyant guitar playing accompanies Anohni’s signature lush alto throughout the record. It’s a meeting of minds that showcases both her exceptional voice and understated yet direct songwriting.
Can’t is a perfect encapsulation of this dynamic, with Hogarth strumming gentle folk chords as Anohni spirals to the heavens in a sort of cautious jubilation. “Can’t stand around talking shit/ With all these rotten teeth,” she sings, before a refrain of “I can’t/ I can’t/ I can’t” takes hold amid a whirlpool of crashing cymbals. The song speaks to the joy in resignation, a kind of relief that should not be seen as shameful, but instead as an opportunity to reflect and regroup your efforts. The 10 songs on My Back… aren’t some kind of passive call to retreat, but in taking a step back from themes of global catastrophe and focusing on the trials of her immediate community, Anohni continues to infuse her music with potent activism. Go Ahead is short but powerful in its anguish, with a searing, almost atonal guitar wailing as Anohni gives an uncharacteristically unbridled vocal performance. “You are an addict/ Go ahead, hate yourself!” she yells. Again, the track projects a deep sense of letting go, of turning your focus onto the things that you possess the power to control – yourself.
While this is clearly a deeply personal album, the artwork is not of Anohni, it’s a black and white portrait of celebrated trans rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. Of course, Marsha is the source from which the Johnsons got their name, but the fact that Anohni has chosen to honour her here is highly significant, as if she is calling on her cultural ancestors in a moment of need. The spirit of Marsha and her peers are venerated on Scapegoat, a song that speaks candidly to the kind of crushing discrimination currently directed towards the queer community by some of the world’s most reprehensible characters. It’s jarring to hear Anohni sing the words, “You’re just so killable/ It’s not your fault/ It’s just the way you were born,” but she’s determined to shine light in even the darkest recesses of our collective psyche.
There’s a defined contrast between the beauty of the music and lyrical content of My Back…, making apparent that even when things seem unsalvageable, there will always be space for love and joy. Anohni’s true talent, even beyond her voice and writing, is the ability to transmogrify her pain into something breathtakingly gorgeous. She is the personification of a lighthouse shining through a nasty tempest – and despite the storms, hope truly does spring eternal.