“I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea / And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I wanna see them burn.” When the first single off an album features these lyrics, it can only be expected that the record itself won't shy away from heavy topics. It comes as no surprise, then, that Anohni's new album Hopelessness delves into issues like government control, war and torture, in addition to climate change.
It is not new for Anohni to discuss politics; she was nominated for an Oscar earlier in 2016, for her song 'Manta Ray', tackling ecocide (a song that she was, probably as a result of structural, systematic transphobia paired with the serious topic that meant the track wouldn't be commercial enough, not invited to perform at the awards ceremony). Of course, being applauded as a political artist only with the release of 'Manta Ray' and '4 Degrees' seems silly. Even under Antony and the Johnsons, her works consistently featured themes around feminism, religion, climate, gender and race politics. (Listen to 'Future Feminism' here.)
Despite taking her music in a new, electronic direction with Hopelessness, the album is still surprisingly close to her material under Antony and the Johnsons in many ways: the same intensity, the same pained, suffocating undertones and majestic string arrangements are still there, as well as the emotionally charged vocals demanding the listeners' undivided attention. The influence of collaborators Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never is visible, however, with Hopelessness sounding ominous with blasting, thunderous drums.
The haunting opening track 'Drone Bomb Me' lays out its themes in a very direct way, immediately setting the tone for the rest of the album. Indeed, there is a sense of consistency and coherence across all the tracks on the album, even with songs like 'Obama' featuring lower, perhaps less polished vocals that only add to the harrowing atmosphere of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
'Crisis' is in many ways a highlight of the album – with lyrics we'd like to quote in their entirety (view them on Genius) and a tone of voice that sounds very vulnerable, even scared. While there is something so genuine about the way it's delivered, there is still irony in the lyrics: “If I tortured your brother in Guantanamo / I'm sorry / I'm sorry / I'm sorry” - a simple, child-like apology to horrors like drone bombing, torture and mass murder. However, it also seems to serve as a reminder of how we as individuals are complicit in all of the suffering. It's not a reality anyone wants to be faced with, but one that they should be. Towards the end of the song, 'Crisis' does also bear resemblances to Antony and the Johnsons' 'Fistful of Love', being the only song on Hopelessness that brings to mind any specific previous works.
The album finishes with 'Marrow' and its deceptively beautiful and even upbeat soundworld, clashing with its sinister lyrics; an effective mixture that sums up the album not only musically, but also thematically: behind a facade of happiness, consumerism and wealth, humanity is destroying itself and the world around it.
While music has always been a driving political force, protest music is often criticised for being too “preachy”, alienating its audiences. While perhaps an unjustified claim anyway, Anohni can hardly be described as lecturing, as she often uses irony to put the message across or takes the perspective of the wrongdoer – the complicit bystander. This way, she doesn't separate herself from her listeners, but places everyone on the same line, forcing the listener to face the reality from their own point of view and to directly assess the affects of their actions. Of course, this is not a comfortable point of view, which is precisely why it is important to take that perspective.
If a protest album makes you uncomfortable, angry or sad, it has done what it's meant to. If, in addition, it is presented with such beauty that leaves you breathless, there is no denying its power, relevancy and place in music. Anohni has succeeded in doing all of this with Hopelessness and has set yet another precedent for what is wanted and needed from music and protest. It is therefore not only one of the most important records you could listen to, but without doubt also one of the best.