From climate to drones, Anohni dances into despair
New York (AFP) – Anohni’s plaintive yet soulful voice has the proven power to move easily jaded listeners to tears. For her solo debut, Anohni has taken a sharp detour into synthpop — yet the despair cuts even deeper.
On “Hopelessness,” the artist best known for leading Antony and the Johnsons, has crafted a piercing protest album, an indictment of the United States in the final year of President Barack Obama and what she sees as a credulous optimism that he could bring change.
“Hopelessness,” which comes out on Friday, paints a bleak picture of a planet that Anonhi views as being ravaged by rising temperatures and an increasingly unaccountable military and intelligence complex.
Yet Anohni, who with Antony and the Johnsons had projected such emotional power and raw vulnerability by playing off lush orchestration, has found her political voice in a synthpop that — subject matter notwithstanding — could bring clubbers to the dance floor.
Whereas the haunting, piano-shrouded opening line of “I Am a Bird Now,” the breakthrough 2005 album by Antony and the Johnsons, went, “Hope there’s someone who’ll care for me when I die,” on “Hopelessness” Anohni sets off on a burst of masochistic energy.
“Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains / And into the sea / Blow me from the side of the mountain / Blow my head off,” she sings in her distinctively smooth-gliding yet gently trembling voice, this time with a dance beat that reinforces the violence over the synthesizers.
– Synthpop as protest music –
The album is the first under the name of Anohni, who is a transgender woman and was earlier known as Antony Hegarty. As Antony and the Johnsons, she won crucial champions such as the late underground rock icon Lou Reed, who is said to have cried when hearing her sing.
The band won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for “I Am a Bird Now” — Anohni was born in England but raised in the United States — leading to a surge in critical attention. The last Antony and the Johnsons album, 2010’s “Swanlights,” was turned into a multimedia performance designed with New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
On assuming her solo identity, Anohni has also spoken of a desire to separate her voice from her physical stage presence. The video for “Drone Bomb Me” features the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who in an exercise in disconnect shows her svelte form while crying and lip-synching Anohni.
Synthpop, another new channel for Anohni, may not appear to be the most obvious genre for protest music. Synthpop has so often been associated with shallow or, at best, ironic lyricism, without the earnestness of, say, folk or punk.
Yet Anohni’s voice casts a solemn presence against the electronic landscape. On “Four Degrees” — the title a reference to the level of warming above pre-industrial levels expected by scientists without major global action — Anohni evokes an apocalyptic future.
“I want to see the animals die in the trees / Let’s go! Let’s go! / It’s only four degrees.”
Anohni worked on the album with leading electronic composers and producers including Hudson Mohawke and Noah Goldstein, who are both known for work with rap star Kanye West, and Valgeir Sigurosson, the Icelandic engineer for the island’s top artists Bjork and Sigur Ros.
– Dark portrait of US –
Anohni’s grim tone similarly evokes brutality on “Execution,” an attack on capital punishment in the United States, the only Western country that still has the death penalty.
Set to dark keyboard progressions that would sound familiar on a Pet Shop Boys B-side, Anohni sings, “Execution — it’s an American dream.”
“If Europe takes it away / Inject me with something else / Fill me up with something else,” sings Anohni, referring to European controls on exports of lethal drugs.
Her criticism becomes straightforward on a track entitled “Obama” as Anohni sings, “All the hope drained from your face / Like children we believed.”
Yet in line with its theme, “Hopelessness” paints a dark picture not just of the United States but of how all people treat the planet.
“Suck the oil out of her face / Burn her hair, boil her skin,” Anonhi concludes. “We are all Americans now.”