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Anohni, it was rumoured and then confirmed, is making a dance album. With Hercules and Love Affair she had already been the quintessential guest vocalist to the club centred and very queer disco outfit and, on Blind in particular, had demonstrated she possessed exactly the right credentials to make a yearning house anthem. HOPELESSNESS, the artist’s first solo album proper and her debut record as Anonhi, is not a house record or an EDM experiment. It draws on electronic music certainly and, perhaps more unexpectedly, pop melodies with RnB and trap inflections, but has a heart that remains as avant garde as anything Antony and Johnsons have released over the past decade. And it’s political. Boy is it political. Anonhi does not mess around with metaphors or coded language, one track is called Obama – and is far from being, as one might have presumed, an endorsement of Barack Obama’s now limited time in office.
Anohni worked with Hudson Mohawke on last year’s superb Lantern and along with Oneohtrix Point Never, these two producers create soundscapes with Anohni on HOPELESSNESS that are glassy and disturbing but also swelling and beat driven. First single 4 Degrees brazenly thunders onto a bellowing horizon previously occupied by Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love that reads as an obvious homage to Bush musically as well as a shared subject matter which connects the two of love and nature. But Anohni’s stance is not that of healer but of a terrifying destroyer of beasts and hearts. She revels in her destruction and of a world on fire and her account of the state of the Earth through man’s doing is as chilling and as powerful as Bush’s own nuclear fallout ballad, Breathing. 4 Degrees my be HOPELESSNESS’ most abandoned and grandiose track, musically and lyrically, but the anger and frustration that seethes through it permeates the entire album albeit at varying temperatures.
Anohni tackles the subject of surveillance culture and the death penalty on Watching and Execution respectively, the titles alone leaving no room for second guessing or ambiguity. One following the other, these two songs are not only the hookiest and most accessible of the album but of Anohni’s career. This indeed makes for a wildly disconcerting experience when you find yourself singing ‘in case I’m involved in evil, in case I’m involved in terrorism, in case I’m involved of child molesters’ whilst in the office or waiting for the 159 to arrive. Watching positions Anohni in her hotel room atop warmly gushing waves of synths with a clever, ear worm of ‘daddy, daddy -ooh’ confusing parental protection with what is actually omnipresent government suspicion and spying. On the equally disturbing Execution she almost trills the chorus ‘Execution, it’s the American Dream!’, coming across as a giddy Madonna for the allegedly doomed, millennials.
If these two songs represent the melodically and sonically, and surprisingly, commercial part of HOPELESSNESS then Obama and Violent Men are its most abstract and challenging moments. Musically Violent Men is a blizzard of chimes and white noise and hard house hoovers, ‘never, ever again will we give birth to violent men’ its distortedly repeated mantra – a chanted, wish fulfilment that sounds something more akin to witch-crafted curses and spells. Violent Men is a short track, a little over 2 minutes, but when this mood is stretched out to over 4 minutes on its sister-track Obama the effect is nightmarish. ‘When you were elected the world cried for joy….now the truth is that you’re spying, execution without trial’ intones a digitally warped and slowed down Anohni suspended above a skittering, hard trap beat with is quietly and eventually joined by a choir and then mournful piano notes. Provocatively these accusations, and the repeat of Obama’s name, are sung in a wavering hymn-like trance similar to that of a mosque’s call to prayer.
The final quarter of the album is less confrontational maybe but just as bleakly frank and hurt. Crisis for example, a delicate ambient ballad which includes the line ‘now you’re cutting heads of innocent people on TV’ followed by repeated apologies, unites the word cry with ISIS. If Anohni recalls any other artist just outside of her generation here then it is Bjork. She has duetted twice with her as Anthony and her passionate and relentless alignment with nature and social injustice and humanity is shared with the Icelandic visionary, who, like Anohni, also takes residence periodically in Manhattan. Moreover HOPELESSNESS often sounds like a Bjork record. The sand papery micro-beats and techno worms , the occasional blast of brass and strings and on Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth? (that title!) Anohni’s vocal phrasing brings to mind Bjorks’s Big Time Sexuality, amongst others.
It’s on this reflective part of the record that they begin to sound like siblings and on the gorgeous Marrow in particular, with its overarching protest of and realisation that ‘we’re all Americans now’, that you fully realise just how incredible this record is. Anohni may not always sound it here, and therein lies a large part of the album’s beauty, but HOPELESSNESS is a feeling that she and many others feel on the potential eve of an American nightmare. Her art here is to get us to listen and to want to listen over and over again to these fantastic and difficult songs until surely a glimmer of something resembling its opposite might just flare up in the darkness. That’s how I decided to interpret it anyway, the truth may be too much to acknowledge.