Hopelessness was one of my shortlist for the ‘no white men’ theme I set for the last meeting (which I then didn’t attend!). In the spirit of increasing the diversity of the artists we play at record club, and because I think it’s an excellent record, I thought I’d still play it.
Hopelessness is ANOHNI’s debut solo record after years fronting Anthony & The Johnsons, and there are kind of three concurrent narratives happening here. Firstly, that this is ANOHNI’s first album since transitioning, which oughtn’t to be a notable thing but is; her voice is so recognisable and familiar after more than a decade in the public eye that to suddenly switch names (how does one pronounce ANOHNI?) and gender pronouns requires you to consciously rewire your synapses briefly before new habits kick in. ANOHNI’s gender identity has been something she’s sung about explicitly for years and, even though it’s not mentioned lyrically here at all, it’s still front and centre, not least because of the records bold, eye-bending cover, which merges ANOHNI’s visage with (I’m pretty sure) that of Naomi Campbell, who has been ANOHNI’s avatar in recent videos and performances. The identity of the person singing these songs cannot be separated from their content.
Secondly, Hopelessness is an emphatic move away from the piano-led, chamber-pop aesthetic of Anthony & The Johnsons. ANOHNI calls upon Oneohtrixpointnever and Hudson Mohawk for production, which basically takes her voice and recontextualises it with a backing of cutting-edge, but very accessible, electronic arrangements. There’s something predictable (I don’t use the term pejoratively) about the way ANOHNI enunciates; you can almost tell just from reading the lyrics how certain words will be sung, and she’d perhaps done as much as she could with her voice within her former aesthetic. Transplanted to another sound world, she sounds fresh again, powerful and emotional.
Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Hopelessness is lyrically a protest record, and it pulls no punches in this regard; the subject matter is upfront and laid painfully bare, as ANOHNI takes on murderous foreign policy, environmental collapse, masculine violence, untrustworthy politicians, drone bombs, and more over the course of 11 songs. Mass graves, beheadings, pollution, false imprisonments, and torture are all mentioned explicitly; this is a long way from Thom Yorke’s wordless vowels of pseudo-political existential crisis.
How well does ANOHNI deal with these topics? Consensus is that Hopelessness is an amazing piece of work, musically and lyrically, and I agree, but it’s not unanimous: Tayyab Amin insightfully lays waste to opener “Drone Bomb Me” from a perspective that would never have struck me independently; he criticises ANOHNI, as a white woman, for appropriating the terror of drone bombs as experienced by people in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and using it for almost trivial purposes; a ‘love’ song.
You could argue about who the narrative voice in the song is, but ANOHNI has explicitly stated that “it’s a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a 9-year-old girl whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb. She is kind of looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.” I can see Tayyab’s point, but I’m also happy to invoke Barthes: the birth of the reader is at the expense of the death of the author, and for me “Drone Bomb Me” is incredible, and an admission of the complicity of the general populace of the US (etc) in such horrific tactics; we elect these people, we know what they’re doing, and we’re letting it happen without really trying to stop it. It’s also an attempt (however successful or clumsy you may feel it to be) to try and understand the terror and hopelessness of the victims. I don’t know of anyone else who’s trying to do that in a way as direct as this.
At points Hopelessness is almost funny, because the subject matter and imagery of these songs is so utterly bleak and harrowing that if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. “I wanna burn the sky / I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees” she sings in “4 Degrees”, which uses dramatic, synthetic horns over programmed beats (which almost sound like Kate Bush’s “The Hounds of Love” as they enter) as a bed for ANOHNI’s voice. It’s searing.
“Watch Me” deals with surveillance culture – “watch me watching pornography / watch my medical history” – framing it, with bitterly direct sarcasm, as paternal care. The subject matter of “Execution” (“it’s an American dream”) is equally as evident just from the title. Throughout, ANOHNI expresses things from the victims’ point of view, while recognising the people who caused them to be victims, directly or indirectly.
Hopelessness offers no solutions to the horror it describes, but it describes these horrors so well that it profoundly expresses the hopelessness (sorry) that comes from pondering them too deeply. I much prefer it to anything Anthony & The Johnsons ever did, and I think there are perhaps two main reasons for that; firstly that it’s easier for me to empathise with these concerns (I directly share them) as a happily-married straight white cis male than it is with, for instance, “my lady story is one of breast amputation”, as much as I may be able to sympathise with that.
But mostly it’s because I think the arrangements are fabulous: Hopelessness works really well as just good pop music; richly textured, exciting, hooky and accessible. It’s over very quickly (less than 42 minutes) and it’s sonically most redolent of modern, programmed electronic post-r’n’b pop. That it’s using this accessibility to deliver a really harsh set of messages makes it really appealing to me; the old push-me, pull-you thing we’ve talked about a hundred times before. The juxtaposition of “Crisis”’ lyrics (“daughter / if I filled up your mass graves / and attacked your countries / under false premise / I’m sorry”) with the delicacy of the pointillist, repetitious electronic melody and, in particular, the shimmering, elevating beauty of the synth line that bursts through the song after three and a half minutes… well, it’s breath-taking.
Angry yet resigned; beautiful but terrible; daring and experimental; direct but complex; naïve yet sophisticated: on a creative level Hopelessness is clearly, to me, a significant achievement. The live shows (black silk facemasks, pre-recorded backing tracks, video screens of Naomi Campbell, ANOHNI facing away from the audience) seem to have been received in mixed terms, lots of admiration but little enjoyment; that can’t be said of the album, which is as pleasurable as it is harrowing.
It seems pertinent that closing track “Marrow” peters out quietly and suddenly, like it gave up trying to be a song anymore and just died. That’s hopelessness.
Steve listened: I found it to be more than a bit confrontational with its message, not pulling any punches. I was only recently discussing with someone about the lack at the moment of a good protest album, a reaction to current times, and here it is. The way he takes an almost devil’s advocate stance on the issues, getting you to see the futility (yes, hopelessness) of policies supporting bombing of innocents, climate change, surveillance makes a change from a right-on soapbox rant, or the sixth form politics of Radiohead.’Obama’ has an eerie tribal vibe to it. That felt quite sinister to me. We wondered at DRC if he’d heard it, and how it might make him feel. From the point of view of the audience (even if you’re not a drone bomber or Obama) I think it’s hard to enjoy this album at face value. It doesn’t let you do that with the directness of the lyrics. I just bought a copy (in the US) on vinyl. Safely tucked in my luggage I look forward to unwrapping and playing. I know it will make me uncomfortable but then a good protest album should do that.
Tom listened: I got the same feeling listening to Hopelessness as I did Hissing Fauna! ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I hear you say, ‘they’re chalk and cheese’. Of course, musically, they’re not that similar (although some parallels do exist). However, my experiences of both Of Montreal and Anthony (as I still can’t help but think of her) were formed at roughly the same point in time and it struck me whilst listening to both records that they are now on the cusp of harking back to a different era, that time has moved on. Obviously Anohni’s album has just been released, but her voice is so distinctive that, even though the music on Hopelessness is very different to that on I Am A Bird Now, I was still propelled instantly back in time to a point where what is current blurs into nostalgia.
I struggled with Hopelessness at first. Maybe for the reasons cited above (overexposure to Anthony in 2005 – Hope There’s Someone was everywhere at the time it seemed…apart from in Steve’s life!), maybe the subject matter, maybe it was too raw and emotive. But it grew on me as it went on and by the end I was more-or-less won over; I felt the songs in the latter half of the record were more understated and subtle but maybe I had just got used to the sound and themes of the record by then. An unexpected pleasure!