Release Date: May 6, 2016
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Never before has relentless brutality sounded so beautiful. Anohni, once known as Antony Hegarty, has shed her Antony and the Johnsons persona, just as she has finally publically shed the gender she never felt part of. In many respects this is a new artist, with skin raw and red from scraping out of her cocoon, albeit maintaining that bitter-sweet purr in her voice, which always felt like despair wrapped in velvet.
Last November, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke opined on the problems facing modern protest songwriters: “If I was going to write a song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit,” he said. “In the 60s, you could write songs that were like calls to arms … it’s much harder to do that now.” Harder, perhaps, but not impossible. A week or so after Yorke made his remarks, Anohni teased her new track 4 Degrees, a combination of cutting-edge electronica and orchestral grandeur that didn’t so much address climate change as dive headfirst into its fiery pits: “I want to hear the dogs crying for water,” she sang.
What has been the price of my protection? This spring at New York's Whitney Museum, the artist Laura Poitras—best known for her 2014 film about the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour—offered a harrowing answer. Within her multimedia exhibition Astro Noise was a piece called Bed Down Location. It invited viewers to lay on a platform in the dark, assuming what in yoga is referred to as "corpse pose." The installation lulled you with doomy static and dispassionate male voices.
ANOHNI's output under Antony and the Johnsons was staggering in its complexity and vision, the sound a kaleidoscope of stained glass, cracked but never shattered. HOPELESSNESS is her first album under her new name, and with that comes a new clarity and purpose to her songwriting, an ownership and authority over her artistic voice that we've not yet seen before.Working with Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, ANOHNI has crafted a shimmering, shadowy electronic pop protest record that thunders and sparks, avenges and retreats, attacks and empowers. With "Drone Bomb Me," ANOHNI establishes HOPELESSNESS's ambitions and its heart.
If you were lucky enough to move to New York City in the early 2000s — just around the time that bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were giving downtown a justly deserved kick in the balls — you might have also been lucky enough to see Antony and the Johnsons performing somewhere like the Knitting Factory or the Kitchen. Even moreso than the rock bands of the era, seeing Antony Hegarty (now known simply as ANOHNI) performing in a dingy bar was actually the stuff fabled NYC dreams are made of. To see this mysterious, gender-indeterminate figure with the voice of an angel singing Angelo Badalamenti covers to a room full of queer degenerates such as myself was both inspiring and life-giving: It was the reason people like me came to this city, to rub elbows with the kind of people that simply could not exist anywhere else.
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.
“Sometimes a feeling is reason enough.” It’s about a third of the way into transgender artist Anohni’s latest album, the ultra-politicized Hopelessness that we find our way to this bold proclamation. Though the specific meaning of the line inside the ironically exuberant “Execution” isn’t quite what you’d expect, in context of the album the line seems to have much larger implications. Hopelessness is an album that constantly tries to get a message across, but it doesn’t mean to do so by sounding like a lengthy article or a piece of legislature.
Anohni, previously known as Antony Hegarty (Antony & The Johnsons, Hercules & Love Affair), is completing her transformation away from her birth identity with this (in part politically relevant) new album. Her upper range remains captivatingly individual, although sometimes here reminiscent of severely underrated disco singer Sylvester. Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke has parlayed interests in messing with hip-hop into a life working with Kanye West, Drake and Lil Wayne.
This extraordinary album, authored by the artist formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons, is all about radical changes, and radical change. Having excised the letter T, Antony is now Anohni, bringing both brand and public face in line with Anohni’s long-held female identification among intimates. Gone are the Johnsons, the non-ensemble who used to underscore Antony’s emotive vibrato.
Making relevant, accessible, uncringey protest music in this day and age is such a difficult task that most artists have decided not to bother. Anohni has been brave enough to take that risk, and the most vital album of recent times is the reward. “I feel the hopelessness,” she sings forlornly on the melancholy title track – but of course the value of an album like this is that it suggests things might not be hopeless after all.
Meditations on Despair & HOPELESSNESS, May 2016 ? Do other people have crisis fantasies as often as I do? What if this building suddenly caught on fire, what if a gunfight broke out, etc. That’s the headspace I’m imagining on “Drone Bomb Me,” a love song to murder performed in the idiom of a child’s videogame fantasy (“Blow my head off/ Explode my crystal guts”). Is this what Stockholm syndrome feels like? Loving the game, even from the losing side? Destruction, even one’s own, can be celebrated as a release and a source of beauty for the depressed and the bored.
It’s always a tricky proposition when a pop artist decides to rile against the world. Even as we face many hot-button issues in the midst of primary season, there continues to be a widespread lack of political awareness from many of today’s most popular voices. The artists themselves don’t seem too concerned, so why should anyone else? Especially recently, when there’s been a rising trend in politicizing what isn’t there: the media has found numerous ways to bring Beyoncé into the conversation as a feminist trailblazer, as if she’s leaving a trail of artful clues for the rest of us to decipher (as remarkable as Lemonade is, it’s strictly a painfully honest account on marital dissolution), while on the other side of the prism there's the cozy relationship musicians have with politicians to circumvent more pressing matters with frivolous amusements, to say the least (the fact that an innocent Drake dis to President Obama made national headlines, and that he actually responded, is as embarrassing as it is concerning).
ANOHNI‘s first solo record without her band displays a musical transition that sees her forego candlelit crooning chamber music for lush electronica. The attitude has also shifted: gone are the beautifully crushing tales found on 2005’s I Am A Bird Now in favour of bold, bitter and angry dissections of a deeply flawed humanity. One might wonder what ANOHNI’s beef is in light of high-profile stories like the general acceptance towards Caitlin Jenner’s transition.
"It's an American dream" coos the transgender artist formerly known as Antony, on "Execution," a spangled pop jam about state-sanctioned murder delivered over silvery percussive stabs and synth builds. It may leave you uncertain whether to dance or collapse in tears, which is the operative dichotomy of an extraordinary record fusing disco uplift, blues pain-purging, gospel salvation-seeking, and protest song testifying. Despite the rangy gorgeousness of her voice and the state-of-the-art electronic dazzle of the music, created with Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Ross Birchard (Hudson Mohawke), Hopelessness isn't easy listening.
‘Hopelessness’, the first album from ANOHNI (previously known as Antony and the Johnsons), is really fucking bleak. The world is ending. We’ve all bought into a machine that’s slowly, mutually destructive. Innocent people are dying for no good reason, every single day. Sooner or later ….
The sweet, beautiful sadness of Anohni's voice (she was previously known as Antony Hegarty) has always been only half the story in her best work. On her recordings with Antony and the Johnsons, the dramatic swell of Anohni's voice was wedded to graceful melodies and lyrics that told deeply emotional, humanistic tales of the struggle for and acceptance of love in a hostile world. Anohni's music so often comprises elegant but passionate stories of the personal made public that her first album after adopting her new name, 2016's Hopelessness, comes as something of a shock.
"We are all Americans now," sings Anohni on "Marrow," from her new album Hopelessness. She doesn't mean it as a compliment. At the end of two disappointing Obama terms, as the US deals with its shrinking global influence and toxic domestic politics, the former leader of Antony & The Johnsons is asking where it all went wrong. She itemises the country's wrongs—drone warfare, state surveillance, capital punishment, a blindness towards climate change—and suggests that much of the world is following the US's destructive lead.
There's a sort of giddy anticipation of a collaborative project of artists whose work you like individually for different reasons and whose intersecting creative paths were a complete mystery. Eluding fanfare, singer Antony Hegarty, now taking the name ANOHNI and commonly known from her music made as Antony & The Johnsons, united with two of the more ambitious electronic producers out there to fashion the music for HOPELESSNESS, her first studio album in four years. In unexpected tandem here is the abstract electro-expressionism of Oneohtrix Point Never and the spasmodic superball buoyancy of Hudson Mohawke, forming the landing pad for the ghostly melancholy of ANOHNI's delivery.
ANOHNI’s Hopelessness is a protest album for the drone dystopia. It serves as both a heartfelt apology for the brutally oppressive actions of our warmongering world leaders, and a prayer that we collectively find a way to heal wounds from the ravages of contemporary life before it’s too late to save us all. The one-time leader of Antony and the Johnsons has partnered with Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke for her debut album as ANOHNI, which strikes a fluid balance between the fragile emotions and defiant social commentary of her lyrics alongside the intoxicating beats and fresh grooves of her creative cohorts.
When I close my eyes and listen to “Hope There’s Someone” from I Am a Bird Now, a shattering lullaby of mortality and despair, I hear the resurrection of Nina Simone. But Simone’s low-pitched, deeply rounded timbre is delivered, with halting and quavering phrasing, by another remarkable voice. It belongs to Anohni, the trans-woman artist who once recorded as Antony Hegarty.
No matter what she writes about, Anohni is only going to reach so many people. The transgender singer formerly known as Antony Hegarty—leader of the soul-squeezing chamber-pop group Antony And The Johnsons—wields a quavering, magically sad voice that even hardcore fans probably need a break from sometimes. Anohni knows this, and so do producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, her collaborators on this tastefully executed electro departure.
Any artist intending to make work about the all-consuming geopolitical problems of the day should take heed of the debut solo album from Antony and the Johnsons lead singer Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty). Many lessons can be gleaned from Hopelessness, but the big one is this: there is a difference between being dramatic and being depressing. Hopelessness explicitly and angrily references ecocide (4 Degrees), war (Crisis), the surveillance state (Watch Me), the death penalty (Execution) and Obama's disappointing presidency (Obama), but it is never didactic.
As befitting a work titled Hopelessness, Anohni’s new record is a daunting and, at times, relentlessly bleak proposition. Formerly known as Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, the artist has repurposed her much-praised singing voice to produce a statement that manages to trouble and delight in equal proportions. It was always an intriguing concept, even as a purely on-paper exercise: a transgendered artist known for her delicate torch songs collaborating with electronica producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, arguably two of the most notable trend-setters in their field in recent years.
If love is a battlefield, as some brassy singer once put it, it stands to reason once in a while you’d see the rules of engagement changed, the arsenal updated. That’s the basic notion at play on “Hopelessness,” the debut album by Anohni, best known previously as vocalist for the art-pop consort Antony and the Johnsons. Enfolded in that flexible ensemble’s tender caress of acoustic instruments and chamber-music decorousness, the inimitable soul singer produced wrenching odes to isolation, alienation, and the quest for identity.
Anohni — Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)On Hopelessness, Anohni carries her political views brazenly on her sleeve, training her sights from the get-go in one of the most aggressively opinionated musical salvos to have emerged from a mainstream artist in decades. The album bursts out of the traps in vitriolic form with “Drone Bomb Me”, in which she takes on the persona of a Middle Eastern being blown to bits by drones. The lyrics are acerbic: “Drone bomb me/blow me from the mountain/and into the sea,” and evoke savage violence hurled against innocents indiscriminately, to the point that, in a paradoxical shift, the victim, embodied by Anohni, come to welcome their fate with drained resignation.