In the mid ‘00s, ANOHNI (then known as Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons) drove major personal change, both within herself and her listeners. Her otherworldly voice, heart-rending lyrics, and burrowing songwriting acted like a realist catechism, a set of prayers for the outcasts and outsiders hoping to find love, connection, peace, some happiness. And they didn’t need to believe in some holy presence either; they had ANOHNI, part ghost, part angel, part hermit, part companion, part inner voice. 2005’s I Am a Bird Now hit the apex of that, her voice soaring even above and beyond an all-star cast of collaborators with their own insular, powerful voices: Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart. ANOHNI outshone them all, gaining wings and soaring across the sun.
A couple of Antony and the Johnsons albums followed, if not equally beautiful then damn near it. Then things went relatively quiet. Six years passed without an album. And now that ANOHNI is back, the return comes with changes in name, style, and substance. Hopelessness, her debut solo album, looks aggressively outward, disgusted global criticisms paired not with haunted piano chords but grimy electronics. Yet still, at the core, stands that iconic voice. While that extreme shift leads to some hiccups, ANOHNI’s presence is undeniable, producing a powerful new form.
To be fair, expecting an album from such an honest, raw performer to not have hiccups would be unreasonable. ANOHNI too readily admits and examines flaws to present a world in which they don’t exist. And her collaborators on this process, Hudson Mohawke’s Ross Birchard and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, are just as eager to dip into the muck and dig around. Announcing the album, she called Hopelessness an “electronic record with some sharp teeth,” and it certainly lives up to that promise.
Those teeth come from a rage with the world that has boiled over. While she had certainly expressed dissatisfaction with her environs plenty in the past, this sort of anger wasn’t necessarily something you’d expect, especially considering her music’s typical sonic palette. But, as ANOHNI puts it herself, anger works exceptionally well in a dance context. “Rage is a really fun place to dance from,” she told Pitchfork. “Expressions of anger sublimated into something beautiful are invigorating, especially if you feel like you’re telling the truth.” If you’re going to get angry, you might as well find something productive in it, and Hopelessness aims to do so in two ways — that maybe the messages will change the world, and if not, you might as well enjoy the cathartic experience of dancing them out. And considering their largely successful delivery, there’s a good chance of both succeeding.
The opening duo of “Drone Bomb Me” and “4 Degrees” hits a peak immediately. The former is sung from the perspective of an Afghan girl begging for annihilation, to be destroyed, to be taken away from this world and to join with her family in the afterlife, all as her “crystal guts” are scattered across the landscape. Drones recur throughout, as they unfortunately do throughout the world, hovering menacingly and threatening uncaring destruction. “Crisis” later asks how you would feel if I “killed your father with a drone bomb” or “tortured your brother in Guantanamo” and ends with ANOHNI practically sobbing out an apology.
Rather than forcing the listener into the perspective of those afflicted by their government and/or their apathy, “4 Degrees” forces the listener to see what their apathy translates to in reality. A recent study found that the Earth’s temperature will rise four degrees Celsius if gas emissions aren’t cut. And to those that say “It’s only four degrees,” ANOHNI reveals what that can equate to: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water/ I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea,” she sings, majestically, as if it’s something to be proud of. The thumping drums and grand strings soar and burn in equal measure, a visceral mirror that has already worked incredibly in live performances, as much of the album will.
On “Obama” (pronounced incredibly sorrowfully, unsurprisingly, here), ANOHNI lists the ways the president let down those that believed he’d change things. Though elsewhere she arcs and bends through registers, here she monotones over a swamp of distorted electronics that recall so clearly 0PN’s Garden of Delete. One of the most purely pretty and approachable beats, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” builds in scrubby synths chords and electronic twinkles, offering a moment to soar across the sky once again, though decidedly not as a happy, free bird — on Hopelessness, instead there is “a case of white doves laying in the boiling snow.”
However, this sort of political messaging can only excel if delivered with sufficient nuance or through an expression that clearly shows sufficient nuanced knowledge lies behind it. In this, ANOHNI occasionally stumbles. That’s not to say she doesn’t know enough — quite the contrary, her interviews and writing on topics ranging from climate change to papal intervention on gay marriage is always incredibly well-thought and written. Rather, the ways in which she writes and sings here sometimes come off without clearly displaying that. “Like the Chinese/ And the Saudis/ The North Koreans/ And the Nigerians,” she sings on the hook to “Execution”, the song discussing the American (and global) propensity to kill in the name of politics. Rather than entities with their own diverse interests and realities, these countries come off as a flat recitation of syllables. Perhaps that’s the point, but they still flop impact-less to the earth. “Watch Me” similarly tackles a big topic with a venomous sardonicism, a sort of hymn to Big Brother thanking “daddy” for protection from terrorism and child molesters. It’s a striking tone, an inventive angle, but the phrases sometimes feel jammed to fit the hook.
But of course, that kind of struggle and clumsiness is nothing compared to the grotesqueries, pain, and turmoil that she’s singing about. And, at worst, they’re minor, momentary distractions from a brutally cathartic and viciously clever examination of today’s geopolitical reality. For so long, ANOHNI had felt like a supernatural force, of this world but able to see a thread of love and hope through all the sadness. By expressing the grimmest realities, that thread becomes harder and harder to find. But ANOHNI’s music makes that struggle all the more powerful.
Essential Tracks: “4 Degrees”, “Drone Bomb Me”, and “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?”