‘we see what happens when the political becomes deeply personal‘ – Hugh McCabe on Anohni’s HOPELESSNESS
Gilles Deleuze, the 20th century’s great philosopher of change, maintained that all things are in a constant state of flux, that the essence of things lies not in what they are, but in what they are becoming. Deleuze sought to sweep aside all notions of fixed identities, or rigid ways of being, and replace them with fluid subjectivities that are given to transformation by means of both gradual metamorphosis and sudden rupture. Metamorphosis and rupture are both at work in Anohni’s terrific new album HOPELESSNESS: metamorphosis in terms of the process by which Anohni, the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, has gradually come to identify as feminine; and rupture in terms of how HOPELESSNESS abandons much of what we have become familiar with from Anohni’s previous work with Antony and the Johnsons.
Antony and the Johnsons came to prominence in 2005 with the much-loved I Am A Bird Now LP, which combined piano-driven balladry with Anohni’s unique vibrato voice to deliver emotive and compelling tales of a life of gender fluidity. This laid the groundwork for much of Antony and the Johnson’s subsequent output but HOPELESSNESS represents a significant shift. Gone are the pianos, the orchestras and the chamber-pop stylings, and instead we get the glacial electronica of producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lapotin). A precedent for this might be Blind, the ecstatic disco anthem that Anohni sang with Hercules and Love Affair, but HOPELESSNESS deals in much darker territory than this, eschewing the hedonistic pleasures of the dance-floor for brooding mid-tempo electronic soundscapes. Also gone is the introspection and preoccupation with inner life that characterised the best of Antony and the Johnsons. By contrast, Anohni is looking outwards at the world. This bird is hatched and flying high, surveying all below her, but is mostly dismayed by what she sees.
Anohni has always favoured a frankness and directness in her lyrics but this tendency has never been as prominent as now. The lead track on the album, Drone Bomb Me, sets the tone for what follows. Sung from the perspective of a potential victim of a drone bombing, it addresses the drone like a lover, imploring it to “choose me tonight”. It’s unsettling and disturbing, the Freudian death-drive set to music, and made all the more effective by the rich melodic synths and synthetic strings that underpin the yearning vocal line. It’s a trick that is pulled off with aplomb many times throughout HOPELESSNESS: Anohni’s beautiful and soulful singing articulating troubling and distressing subject matter. In Watch Me it’s the emergence of the electronic surveillance state, the all-seeing panopticon that Snowden warned us about. Anohni refers to this as “Daddy”, pointing not just to the increasing infantilisation of citizenship, but also the familiar trade-off between protection and obedience that is offered by the patriarchal state. In Execution it is the tendency towards killing, both intra- and extra-judicial, that has come to be one of the hallmarks of all US administrations.
This frankness reaches its nadir with the searing Obama where Anohni abandons her characteristic singing voice in favour of a low pitch-shifted monotone, delivering a despairing indictment of Obama as the great destroyer of hope. For Anohni, Obama should not be remembered for his inspirational rhetoric and witty speeches to well-fed press correspondents, but rather for “executing without trial”, “betraying virtue” and “punishing whistleblowers”. It’s probably the bleakest moment on a record that contains many such lows. The song finishes with a gorgeous piano outro that harks back nostalgically to Anohni’s previous work and in doing so only underscores this sense of loss and betrayal.
Much of HOPELESSNESS is concerned with the excesses of US domestic and foreign policy and in particular the dubious ethics of its increasing reliance on dehumanising technology such as drones. The other primary preoccupation is environmental crisis. The protagonist of 4 Degrees (named after the projected global temperature rise we can expect this century) sounds like an evil vengeful God exultant in his ability to wreak havoc upon the Earth – “I want to see this world/I want to see it boil” and “I want to see the animals die in the trees”. But it could just as easily be the human race itself, as a suicidal death-wish seems the only logical explanation for a species so seemingly hellbent on destroying the environment that sustains it. This ability to inhabit these kinds of global perspectives is one of the striking aspects of HOPELESSNESS. There is no trite “us vs. them” moralising here, but rather a suggestion that the evils of the world are in us all, they inhabit our collective unconscious, and we are all culpable to one extent or another for that which is done in our name. The title track goes as far as to suggest that humanity itself is a virus, one that takes more than it deserves, leaving “nothing in reserve”.
Anohni has spoken before about eco-feminism, the idea that feminist concerns are interlinked with environmental ones, and this concept clearly informs HOPELESSNESS. Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 book, The Death Of Nature, proposed that nature and culture became separated from each other around the time of the Enlightenment, and that patriarchal industrial capitalism increasingly saw the natural world as a resource to be exploited, as opposed to the benevolent nurturer of all things. This is most clearly expressed in the anthemic Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?, where Anohni seems to castigate God for this violent and unnatural separation, and it crops up again in Marrow where the Earth is imagined as a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. The notion that pre-Enlightenment times represented some sort of utopia where humankind was more in tune with the natural world might be somewhat naive, and it’s certainly not something it is possible to return to (the protagonist of Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth? declares “I don’t want your future/I’ll be born into the past”), but nevertheless the reminder that our ecological predicament is deeply entangled with our culture and history is a welcome one. No amount of putting the cans out for recycling is going to fix this.
The personal is political has long been a guiding principle of feminist thinking but in HOPELESSNESS we see what happens when the political becomes deeply personal. It has a rage and anger that clearly comes from a deep and heartfelt place. It offers no solutions but nevertheless its refusal to divert its gaze from some of the most troubling aspects of our time is bracing and cathartic. It suggests that denial is the worst thing of all and that the only route towards any kind of redemption starts with an acknowledgment of the depths to which we have sunk. The surprising thing about HOPELESSNESS though is that, in spite of the bleakness of its subject matter, there is much to celebrate about it. It’s warm and empathetic and almost joyful in parts. In a less imperfect world than this, one could even imagine HOPELESSNESS propelling Anohni into the first rank of international stardom. A politically charged transgendered global pop star really would be something to see. It’s unlikely, but in spite of what she herself might say, there’s always hope.