Cruel Optimism – The Daunting Ambition of Anohni
MUSIC, 23 May 2016
2 May 2016 – The strangest thing about “Drone Bomb Me,” the first track on Anohni’s début solo album, “Hopelessness,” isn’t the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a young Afghan girl, looking up at the sky, waiting for death. “Blow me from the side of the mountain / Blow my head off,” Anohni sings, in a quivering falsetto, searching out the drone’s camera eye. The strangest thing is that the song is a seduction: with its triumphant fanfare of synths and cavernous drops, it’s a slow jam. There’s a relationship here, albeit a perverse and destructive one. As the girl awaits her executioner, she scrambles our sense of who’s zooming in on whom. “Let me be the one,” she sings, part dare and part demand. “The one that you choose from above.”
Fatalism has always been a part of Anohni’s work, though until now this sense of melancholy was directed inward. During the aughts, Anohni, who is transgender, performed under her birth name, Antony Hegarty, as the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons. The group made earnest and enchanting music, a kind of restrained, baroque pop built around Anohni’s voice, an instrument that, like that of her sometime collaborator Björk, is impossible to forget, a sublime wonder that calls to mind Boy George, Nina Simone, and what I imagine a radiant, healing crystal sounds like. On albums such as “I Am a Bird Now,” which won the 2005 Mercury Prize, Antony and the Johnsons sang songs of resignation, fear, and loneliness, dreaming all the while of a free and fluid future.
Throughout her career, Anohni has sought out a range of collaborators, from Lou Reed to the New York dance-music group Hercules and Love Affair, for whom she played the role of the pensive disco diva. She even worked with the E.D.M. titan Skrillex, though that music was never released. Anohni recently told the Web site Pitchfork that it was during her sessions with Skrillex that she began wondering if she could fit heavy ideas into “plastic” pop tunes. She decided to make a dance record, collaborating with Hudson Mohawke, the Scottish producer and d.j., who is known for his abrasively textured approach to beat-making, and the American experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never, who specializes in uncanny, analog, synth-driven soundscapes. “Hopelessness,” the resulting album, is no less vulnerable than her previous records. Its sense of fragility, however, is situated not between soul mates but between citizen and state. “Daddy, Daddy,” Anohni sings, over a voluptuous synth line, on “Watch Me.” “I know you love me / ’Cause you’re always watching me.” It may be the most erotic song ever written about the surveillance state, as she addresses a government that tracks her every move, from city to city and from Web site to Web site.
At times, “Hopelessness” feels like an attempt to break up with America, to quit a way of life. (Though Anohni was born in the U.K., she grew up in California.) “You left me lying in the street / You left me without body heat,” she sings, on the flickering “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” On “Obama,” she twists and strains her voice until it approaches an ugliness that matches her words: “All the hope drained from your face,” she mutters. “Like children we believed.” The majestic soar and gruff synths of “4 Degrees” recalls Hudson Mohawke’s production work for Kanye West. But unlike West, who revels in hubris and swagger, Anohni uses the occasion to offer a lament for an overheating planet, sarcastically pantomiming the logical end of climate-change denialism: “I want to burn the sky, I want to burn the breeze / I want to see the animals die in the trees.” Her interest in environmental issues is not new; it cohered on “The Crying Light” (2009), which interspersed a search for inner peace with elegies to a vanishing landscape. Earlier this year, “Manta Ray,” her contribution to the soundtrack of “Racing Extinction,” a film about man’s role in the disappearance of species, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. The composition employed lush, intimate arrangements to warn of ecological disaster, with Anohni’s vocals giving an illusion of control. The drama of “Hopelessness,” by contrast, comes from listening to her rage against chaos and club escapism. It’s a backdrop that feels aggressive and more overtly man-made.
We often think of protest music in terms of its capacity to mobilize people to respond to a crisis. After all, it is the collective imagination of the listeners that turns a piece of music into politics: think of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a song of buoyant defiance that took on a new life once it was adopted as an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. As I listened to Anohni’s songs about melting ice caps, the death penalty, and Guantánamo, I kept thinking that the daunting scale of their ambition verged on the ridiculous. How do you focus on such a sweeping panorama of despair? At whom do we direct our outrage? It’s hard to take in so much of the world without its becoming an abstraction. Last month, the British singer P. J. Harvey released “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” an album based on her travels to the most blighted regions of Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C. Some critics saw this well-intentioned album as naïve and voyeuristic. This reflects the challenges of creating art that draws not from lived experience but from empathy, a problem that is present in Anohni’s work as well.
And yet: there were moments when I believed that the otherworldly glow of Anohni’s singing was what our collective consciousness must sound like—that the divine possibilities of her voice were more persuasive than the bluntness of her language. While listening to “Hopelessness,” I thought about the concept of “slow violence,” the theorist Rob Nixon’s term for threats that unravel gradually, with a nearly imperceptible rhythm, like deforestation or an oil spill—dangers that can’t be conveyed in a single image.
For Anohni, the evils that surround us are ambient, the products of inertia and indifference. Maybe the most devastating threat is the one we see in the mirror. In the end, “Hopelessness” is about her collusion in all that she assails. “How did I become a virus?” she asks on the title track. As a firecracker-like drum pattern rises through the song, she confesses, “I’ve been taking more than I deserve / Leaving nothing in reserve / Digging till the bank runs dry / I’ve been living a lie.” It’s the closest that “Hopelessness” comes to a reckoning. It’s not quite guilt, which suggests the possibility of finding a different way of being.
Listening to the album over and over never complicated my preëxisting opinions about American exceptionalism, Obama’s drone policy, or ecological disaster. I’d be surprised if anyone who is drawn to Anohni’s music would need to be swayed on any of these issues.
But “Hopelessness” does not live down to its naysaying title. As I fell deeper under the spell of Anohni’s voice, I forgot about the logistics of creating a better world, and began thinking about what I demand from art, why I had scoffed at the grand premise of this album. Why doesn’t more art aspire to do something that seems impossible? “Hopelessness” won’t turn back history or undo politics—that would be a foolish presumption. But, like the most powerful music, it reminds us of the importance of dignity, integrity, and imagination. The world Anohni describes on “Hopelessness” is unrelentingly awful; it is our world. But at the center of it is a transcendent voice singing against heavy machinery, daring you to listen to the words coming out of your own mouth.
Hua Hsu is a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com. His first book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2016.
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