When ANOHNI’s music is at its best, it has the power to radicalize you without notice. You’ll be washing dishes or wandering the neighborhood singing under your breath when the weight of her writing hits you: you’ve been murmuring about gender dysphoria, about the AIDS crisis that ravaged a generation of queer people, about the dire consequences of environmental recklessness. You’re made to feel subverted, even if these are issues already near and dear to your heart.
HOPELESSNESS is ANOHNI’s first collection of new material in six years — Swanlights, her last album under the name Antony and the Johnsons, was released in 2010 — and it’s her broadest yet in terms of both scope and sound. Climate change, drone warfare, the surveillance state, and our complicitness in perpetuating injustice are all on the thematic menu, and they’re coupled to beats from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never that are glittering and militaristic. (It’s as if ANOHNI looked at the world and its aggressive, patriarchal societies and thought, "I’d like to fight fire with fire.") These are high-risk, high-reward artistic decisions, and when they pay off they yield the most affecting music of her career. When they don’t — and there are some misfires here — the results are strident and ponderous.
The album’s nothing if not front-loaded: singles "Drone Bomb Me" and "4 Degrees" are the best examples of its power, and they make for one of the year’s most impressive one-two punches. On the former, ANOHNI gives voice to a child whose entire family has been killed by drones, leaving her begging to join them; she’s chanting about the planet’s accelerating warming on the latter, rattling off species that are sitting on the verge of extinction. She renders death and destruction in sensual terms, linking societal greed to some kind of primal lust. (Ignore the words, and they almost sound like love songs.) They end up having the same disruptive effect described above: the music sweeps you off your feet, and then you realize you’re inhabiting the voice of a child pleading for death so she can see her family again. You’re whistling along as an ark’s worth of animals are starving and dying. It’s heavy, disorienting stuff.
There's a balance between message and melody
These songs are remarkable because of the balance they strike between message and melody. They work in concert, and ANOHNI spends the rest of HOPELESSNESS trying to nail the proportions in the same way with varying degrees of success. "Crisis" almost gets there, overwhelming you with sobbed apologies and the album’s most stunning arrangement. "Watch Me," an oscillating examination of privacy and suspicion in the digital age, is just as good. But the album’s efficacy falls off a cliff when you’re forced to reckon with her anger and disillusionment without a musical buffer. "Obama" is a corroded, tuneless takedown of the titular leader and his failure to deliver on the hope his election promised; "Violent Men" takes the glacial tones of Björk’s Vespertine and uses them to lament the omnipresence of said violent men. Both tracks sit within the middle of HOPELESSNESS, and they work together to bring the album to a shuddering halt.
I have problems with the delivery, not the perspective. ANOHNI is an experienced and thoughtful advocate, with the letter she wrote regarding her decision not to attend the Academy Awards — she was just the second transgender nominee ever, having been nominated for Best Original Song — serving as just the most recent example. We can all agree that giving aggro hotheads around the world the keys to massive military forces and unfathomable resources hasn’t had the highest success rate possible over the last two millennia.
But the message can only take root if you’re willing to stick around and listen, and it’s hard for me to fathom voluntarily making my way through the middle chunk of HOPELESSNESS again. Instead, I’m looking forward to the moment in the future where I catch myself humming "Drone Bomb Me" — and the moment right after, when I think about what those words actually mean for people around the world. That’s the moment within which I know ANOHNI’s done something right.