Anna Meredith – Varmints: Round 98, Nick’s choice

Anna Meredith came to my attention when she won the SAY – Scottish Album of the Year – for 2016 in the summer, beating the likes of Young Fathers, Steve Mason, Emma Pollock, and FFS. I didn’t know her name, but I did recognise the artwork for Varmints, and the description – classical composer makes debut pop/electronic album – made it sound right up my street.

It starts with “Nautilus”, an enormous, instrumental, Steve-Reich-like horn loop that never fails to get Nora dancing (she’s been known to point at the hi-fi and say “music”, and then get huffy if anything but this album gets put on). It’s not pop music, per se, and not quite dance or electronic either, but it is catchy, and it does make you move. As someone on ILM described it, it is “focused and amazing-sounding”. And it really is; the resonances of the horns and reverberations of the drums are monolithic and cavernous and loaded with detail.

Every single second of Varmints has something interesting going on sonically and/or compositionally; there’s a real feeling of musical depth and richness without it feeling complicated for the sake of complication. It’s been said that one of the joys of [pop?] music is how your brain tries to predict what’s going to happen next (and the satisfaction when you either get it right, or something beautifully unexpected happens), and Meredith surfs that line between comfortable, reassuring predictability and interesting, confounding unpredictability with expert poise.

At first Varmints almost felt too… positive? Too major-key? As if there was no real edge or dissonance to it. But a; that’s not actually true, as there are numerous frenetic / angry / charged / sad moments, and b; even if it was, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Taken”, the second track and a single that’s found loads of airplay on 6music, definitely felt a touch too… something… in its male-female harmony vocals the first few times I played it (“Taken sounds like Nirvana’s Lithium as performed by an am-dram society” read another ILM comment), but the slashing guitars, tightly-wound synth loops, and odd rhythmic changes, as well as those hard-to-ignore vocals, have seeped into my cerebellum over the months to the point where I now thoroughly enjoy it.

About half the tracks are instrumental, and the album mixes up synthetic elements with cello, drums, clarinet, guitars, and many more different live instruments. The tone shifts massively from track to track; “Something Helpful” is delicate and yearning, but “R-Type” is almost violently repetitive and machine-like, and “Dowager” is tinged with sadness through both the arrangement and the lyrics, while “Blackfriers” is essentially beautiful, plaintive ambient music.

Meredith herself was born in London but moved to Scotland aged two, and has various compositional awards, a Masters from the Royal College of Music, and composer-in-residences on her CV. She’s also released a pair of EPs, Black Prince Fury and Jet Black Rider from 2012 and 2013 respectively, from which “Nautilus”, originally from Black Prince Fury, is the only track to feature on Varmints. Each EP has a rather surprising and surreptitious cover version hidden on it, by the way…

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PJ Harvey – Is This Desire?: Round 97, Nick’s choice

“I do think Is This Desire? is the best record I ever made – maybe ever will make – and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career. I gave 100 per cent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time.”

PJ Harvey’s fourth album came three and a half years after her previous record, the performative, modernist blues cabaret of To Bring You My Love, which had been a moderate crossover success and acclaimed in the music press. In the meantime she made Dance Hall At Louse Point with John Parrish, and collaborated with Tricky and Nick Cave (and had a relationship with the latter which inspired, allegedly, much of The Boatman’s Call).

James Oldham in NME gave Is This Desire? a 6/10 score, and lambasted it for being “wilfully uncommercial”. “It is an album tormented by visions of endless women doomed by their own circumstances. In the space of just 40 minutes, we’re presented with Angelene, Joy, Leah, Elise, two Catherines and countless other unnamed characters, all united by a sense of their own (almost comical) misfortune.” It’s worth noting that lead single “A Perfect Day Elise” is still PJ’s highest-charting – it reached number 25. It’s also worth noting that James Oldham is a man writing for an ‘indie’ magazine nearly 20 years ago, and Is This Desire? is a record about female desire that is pretty defiantly not ‘indie’, in that 4-boys-with-guitars-and-hair way that Britpop was the apex of. A final thing worth noting is that Is This Desire? was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance of 1998. So what does James Oldham know?

Is This Desire? covers a huge amount of musical ground; it lives in that twilight space after Britpop and triphop when the British music press didn’t really know what to call anything. There are chunky, oppressive loops based around keyboards, electronics, and bass, and moments of delicate piano minimalism. Parts of it are intensely, wildly aggressive, as aggressive as anything PJ Harvey has recorded, and yet the overall feel of the album is hushed, subtle, almost withdrawn.

18 years on it feels like my favourite PJ Harvey album, alongside Let England Shake. The two records are similar in many ways, from their monochrome sleeves to their forward-thinking, backwards-referencing approach to a hidden side of history; history taken on painfully individual levels, rather than broad brush-strokes across cultures and societies. Only instead of war and atrocity, the characters here are victims of emotional violence, often, seemingly, of their own causing. Even the lyrically celebratory moments – like “The Sky Lit Up” – are rendered with a disconcerting edge (which would be almost completely shorn from the far more accessible and positively-received Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea two years later) that makes the album feel emotionally harrowing even as it describes things which seem positive when written down and divorced from their musical contexts.

This being a PJ Harvey album at record club, there was, as ever, a lot of talk about authenticity and performativity and autobiography. It seems, following The Hope 6 Demolition Project earlier this year, to me that Polly Jean Harvey has always been a historian in many ways, exploring primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in her music, both musically and especially lyrically. I know very little about her as a person, which seems to be how she likes it.

Let’s finish with another quote from Polly herself, from an interview around the time Is This Desire? was released: “the tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft-practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It’s a load of rubbish.”

Jeff Buckley – Grace: Round 96, Nick’s choice

jeff_buckley_graceHow do you write about Jeff Buckley in 2016? When so much water has gone under so many bridges, when so many imitators have drained his legacy, assuming that a sensitive falsetto is the key part of it? How do you even listen to Jeff Buckley in 2016, given all this? It’s nearly 20 years since he dove into the Mississippi and never climbed out.

Jeff Buckley was the first name mentioned at our “I can’t believe we haven’t played this already” meeting a couple of weeks ago, by Tom, but still no one played Grace. I’d thought about Buckley, and ummed and ahhed a bit, but decided not to bring him along to that meeting (everyone would much rather listen to U2, I thought). It then felt kind of obvious to bring him along to the next one, for which there was no set theme. So I did.

I bought Grace on CD in Newton Abbott Our Price (remember Our Price?) shortly after he died in 1997. I’d have been 18, just. It’s one of the few records that I can remember impacting me on first listen. Stupidly, at that age, I wasn’t into solo artists because I had a bizarre notion in my head that they’d all just sing unaccompanied by anything other than an acoustic guitar (for at least the majority of their songs), and therefore be insanely boring. Because otherwise why not just be in a band and have a cool band name? (It’s fair to say that I was quite fixed in many of my ideas about music – and other stuff – when I was younger.) But it was obvious from the first few seconds of “Mojo Pin” – that low hum, the twining guitar, the sashaying drums – that this wasn’t some bozo with an acoustic guitar and nothing else.

Like many people back then I became a little obsessed with Jeff Buckley; I hammered Grace until I’d internalised every vocal and instrumental nuance and climax, bought up old live EPs and CD singles, and waited impatiently for the unreleased songs that would emerge, almost exactly a year after his death, as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. (But not, it must be said, the ragtag gaggle of hodgepodge compilations that have followed over the years.)

I haven’t really listened to Jeff Buckley much in the last 15 years or so; like many artists I gorged on in days gone by I haven’t felt the need to because of over-familiarity. Also, with Buckley in particular, but with several other late-adolescent favourites, there’s a vague sense of guilt at the emotional indulgence of listening: Grace is a very, very dramatic record, full of heightened emotional states, whooping climaxes, and histrionic expressions that are coupled with very few direct referents and very little clear sense. Which is to say that I have pretty much no idea what most of the songs here are about, but good grief they don’t half make you feel.

A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ (read Elbow, The National, Radiohead, Coldplay, Snow Patrol) turns its tricks by repeating and repeating with added elements and intensity. This can be penetratingly affecting, but it can also be deeply dull if the purveyor isn’t incredibly skilful. One of Buckley’s masterstrokes on Grace is his ability to build to enormous, overbearing, wailing crescendos without repeating himself much if at all; “Last Goodbye”, the obvious big single, for instance, manages to get to its destination without really having a proper chorus or phrase that’s repeated more than once, even though it feels like it must do.

A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ also utilises lyrics that are opaque to the point of being meaningless, and that’s no different here, for the most part. Buckley was a massive Smiths fan, but there’s none of the multi-layered humour and self-analysis that Morrissey was so great at. Sure, some of the couplets (when paired with that voice and these arrangements) are strikingly memorable (the “please kiss me” line from “Last Goodbye”), but they’re counterbalanced by a stream of adolescent clunkers (“she is the tear that hangs inside my soul forever” from “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”). But these wracked, intense demonstrations of emotion are forgivable, ignorable even, because (again) of that voice, and how fulsomely and convincingly Buckley throws himself into the songs.

Also, a lot of the time I simply don’t have a clue what lyrics Buckley’s singing, such is the fervour with which he bends vowels and consonants and syllables out of recognisable patterns. (In 2016, of course, you could just look-up the lyrics on the internet, but in 1997 that wasn’t so easy.) (Are they in the sleeve? I can’t even remember.) (They’re ultimately not that important.) (And music writing that leans on literary analysis of lyrics just plain sucks, anyway.)

Like an intense, body-shaking adolescent sobbing fit (or a big teenage wank), Grace gives catharsis but can leave you feeling spent and a touch guilty for letting yourself go to the indulgence of release. Revisiting it has been fascinating; I’ve no idea what I’d make of a record like Grace if I were to encounter it new today, but I’m very glad I got to it when I was 18.

Tom listened: Funnily enough I dug Grace out of my collection and gave it a spin a month ago for the first time in probably more than a decade having heard Lover, You Should Have Come Over on the radio.

It sounded as fresh and accomplished (I can think of no better word to describe Grace) as it ever did; the singing, playing and songwriting being top drawer throughout. It also, crucially for me, transcends all those copyists Nick has already relatively comprehensively listed that came along in the slipstream  – to put it bluntly, when it came to making this sort of music (to my mind ‘this sort of music’ sounds like The Bends rather than Amnesiac), Buckley was simply the best. Sure, there are a few cuts I would cull from Grace, but the vast majority of the record still sounds as revelatory as it did twenty years ago when it first exploded onto the scene.

U2 – Achtung Baby: Round 95, Nick’s choice

600I reckon U2 are more influential than The Velvet Underground, in terms of how many records the artists influenced by either have sold. And how many artists they’ve influenced. Turn on the radio at any point in the mid-00s and you’d hear a massive Sincerity Rock Band with echoes of U2; take “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap as an example. Or Coldplay or Snow Patrol’s entire careers. (OK, maybe not the first two albums by the latter.) When I first heard Arcade Fire I baulked because everyone was going crazy for them but they were using the U2 bassline all over Funeral, which I basically see as both emotionally manipulative and creatively bankrupt. Arcade Fire then, of course, went “full Achtung Baby” on Reflektor. More about what “full Achtung Baby” means in a bit, possibly. Even in the 90s the likes of Oasis and Radiohead made nods towards the Irish megaband even if they didn’t quite sound like them.

I once told a staunch U2 fan and sensible atheist (and holder of a PhD about vaginal imagery in the Alien films), many years ago, that every U2 song is about god, one way or another, and they said I was talking crap. “Go away and think about it” I replied, and a few days later they came back and said I’d ruined U2 for them, because it is, indeed, true, that every single one of their songs is about god. One way or another.

Every time I use the phrase “you too” near my elder brother, such as when he says “have a nice weekend” and I respond “you too”, he says “what’s Bono got to do with anything?”, which is intensely annoying. I have started doing this as well, which is probably also intensely annoying.

U2 are almost inconceivably massive; they’ve sold more than 170 million albums, won 22 Grammys (more than any other band), and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, the first year they were eligible. (Though we established on the night at Record Club that Rihanna and Taylor Swift have each sold more records in a considerably shorter timeframe than U2.) (Other artists who’ve sold more records that U2: The Beatles, Elvis, Jacko, Madonna, Elton, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney, Queen, The Rolling Stones, ABBA, Garth Brookes, Eminem, and The Eagles.) What this means is that they are ‘the establishment’.

I feel like U2 have hovered over Record Club like a tiny grey cloud, often imperceptible but occasionally remarked upon, recognised as bringing something potentially necessary to the table (the rain that makes crops grow, to extend the metaphor), sometimes beautiful, productive and useful in their own right, but mostly fucking annoying.

I once a read an interview where Bono said that he harboured vague ambitions to write a novel, but had decided that he never would in case it wasn’t “one of the great novels”, as what would be the point in branching out and producing something merely average, or even quite good, in another field, when he’d already made some of “the great records”. More than anything else, that sentiment made me think he was a cunt. Bono’s clearly a massive smugface bellend, but he’s more wealthy than most countries, so probably doesn’t give a damn what I think.

Achtung Baby is U2 trying to think outside of their box, trying not to be a massive Sincerity Rock Band anymore, trying to embrace groove, art, pop, Berlin, Bowie, hip-hop, that shuffle-y indie-dance beat that people think The Stone Roses introduced (they didn’t; it was The Mock Turtles), postmodernism, the 90s, and probably some other stuff. Including nudity, judging by the cover. When a band “goes full Achtung Baby” it’s arguably the equivalent of a middle-aged man buying a sports car. A (futile?) attempt to rebrand oneself as one feels youth and relevance slipping away, perhaps.

Achtung Baby is, of course, co-produced by Eno, and it sounds like he does a lot more here than just add widdly ambient intros to massive Sincerity Rock Band anthems. Except that, actually, Daniel Lanois is arguably more important. And maybe U2 themselves deserve a little credit. And actually let’s not give U2 anty credit for anything, the massive bellends. I pretty much hate U2, but this album is really, really good. Except the last three tracks, when being a massive Sincerity Rock Band kicks in like biological memory, and they can’t help themselves. (Notably this is only the second record we’ve ever chosen not to listen to the entirety of at Record Club.) Many of the songs on Achtung Baby are actually fun! And groovey! (“Even Better Than The Real Thing”, “The Fly”, “Mysterious Ways”, “Zoo Station”.) The drums and bass consistently sound really weird and thuddy and odd, like someone really misunderstanding dance music and krautrock and making something kind of interesting by accident instead. The Edge (Dave to his mum) does some interesting stuff with his guitar that doesn’t involve playing three notes over and over with massive delay.

In the press around the album Bono ranted about corporate sponsorship and the stupidity of rock mythology and rock’s “fat bastards” and sticking up for indie bands (in 1991, when ‘indie band’ actually meant being independent and alternative), which is kind of sad, because U2, as established by the buckets of Grammy Awards and 170 million album sales and undeniable influence on all sorts of other bands who really ought to be a whole lot better, are the most establishment band that there has ever been. Way more than The Beatles ever could be. They’re corporate rock 40-year careerists. They literally foisted an album on millions of unsuspecting, innocent people by signing a massive horrorshow deal with Apple that basically abused everyone’s iPhones. They’re pretty much disgusting. I quite like bits of Pop though, and those first three songs from The Joshua Tree are pretty undeniable.

Achtung Baby being really good might actually, probably, be down to Flood. it’s all about how it’s mixed. Just get the minimalist start to “So Cruel”. Pretty much everything U2 have done post Pop has been an exercise in sounding as much like people think U2 sound as possible. What they’ve forgotten is that, actually, U2 also sound like this, as well as The Joshua Tree.

Steve listened: I came out in a bad U2 rash after this outing of Bono Vox – for that is his full alter-ego pretentious name adopted much in the same vein as Sting. The thing that U2 have done is to have provided a simplistic template of how to herd the masses in terms of musical taste – adopted then by the likes of Coldplay, Snow Patrol etc. They masquerade as the underground, playing with those influences, much in the same way that a certain main-chain shops take on qualities of the independents. They also make themselves sound more important than they actually are, and this comes through no more clearly than via the mouth of Bono. Vague statements about “coming together”, “peace”, “touching god” make for an insipid attempt to probe the human psyche, but don’t really require much thought to get there. Easy listening for the masses and that is why I hate them.

Tom listened: Ever since I was a teenager I have lived in fear that eventually U2 would release a record that was so undeniably great that I would have to admit (to myself, if no one else) that it is really rather good.

And…I actually quite liked One when it was released as a single!

So I was a little fearful when Nick pulled out Achtung Baby that that moment might have come, the moment when I could no longer comprehensively and wholeheartedly ‘hate’ U2 with a clear conscience.

I needn’t have worried – although reasonably palatable musically, Achtung Baby is still risible. After all, at its helm are the conceited warblings of the biggest egomaniac in rock music! Horrible.

Laura Nyro AND LABELLE – Gonna Take A Miracle: Round 94, Nick’s choice

nyroI could, and should, have just gone for the safe choice, and picked something from this year that I knew no one else owned because we’d talked about it, like Anna Meredith or Thee Oh Sees. Or some semi-obscure electronica like Akufen or Superpitcher. Or some bloody modern British jazz, like I pick every other bloody round anyway. But no, I tried to be a bit clever, and pick something by someone that somebody might have heard of. Tom asked what year it was from. When I said 1971 he replied that he owned something by EVERYBODY from 1971. And he does, the bastard. So Laura Nyro AND LABELLE cost me a tenner. Unfairly, I might add, because this album of sumptuous, fangirl covers of the soul, R’n’B, doo-wop, girl-group, Brill Building and Motown that Laura adored growing up as a teenager in the Bronx is most definitely a collaboration, and Tom only actually owns a live album by Laura Nyro which features no LaBelle at all whatsoever, making this, I think, a record by a substantively different artist.

Anyway, quibbling aside, Gonna Take A Miracle is produced by Gamble & Huff, who are basically the architects of that sumptuous Philly soul sound, and it is lush (but not, note, overblown). Laura’s a good enough singer on her own, but backed up by Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, as well as the formidable musicianship of Gamble & Huff’s session band, she becomes part of something absolutely formidable, and not a little bit gorgeous. It’s a record made by great musicians as a tribute to the great music they grew up with, and as such it’s full of love.

There’s not a great deal else to say about Gonna Take A Miracle; it’s soul music, and it’s fabulous. I don’t have a back story with it particularly – I bought it years and years ago after reading about its status as a bit of a lost classic. I might argue that it contains the definitive versions of “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere To Run”, but arguing about this music seems churlish to say the least. Just enjoy it.

Mitski – Puberty 2: round 93, Nick’s choice

Erika_12JKT EPS_r3Frankly I’ve become rubbish at writing since I had a kid; my free time has been eroded, and I’d rather spend it on a bicycle or hanging out watching TV with my wife rather than hunched over a laptop typing. Hence the tardiness in writing this post, and the brevity of some of my recent responses. I am sure that you, faithful reader, are feeling pangs of yearning for more verbose times . (Today is a good day to post this, however, as Wikipedia tells me that tomorrow is Mitski’s birthday.)

So then, Mitski. I’d never heard of her before this earlier this year, when I noticed Puberty 2 sitting near the top of the Metacritic top albums list. The last time I noticed a solo artists I’d never heard of before on there was St Vincent in 2009, so I figured she was worth a punt. And she is!

Puberty 2 is, basically, an indie rock record; there are guitars, and bass, and drums (along with [synthetic, I assume] trumpets, and keyboards, and stuff), and a woman singing about identity and heartbreak and dreams belonging. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before, and many times, but Mitski does it very well: perhaps her half-Japanese, half-American heritage (“your mother wouldn’t approve / of how my mother raised me / but I do / I finally do”) offers a slightly different perspective; perhaps the fact that she studied music at university in New York state gives her a compositional edge. Perhaps we should ignore the ontology and just listen to the tunes?

There’s a definite 90s alt.rock aesthetic to a good chunk of Puberty 2: the crunchy guitars that aren’t afraid to reach a dynamic crescendo (get a load of the grinding, swooning climaxes in “Your Best American Girl”), and the distorted vocals that reveal emotional tension by masking it could be from 1996.

This is probably just cultural privilege and cliché, but Mitski‘s voice wasn’t what I expected either; it’s a much tougher, more strident vehicle, and reminds me of someone who I can’t quite place. (On the night Rob said, instantly, Angel Olsen, but at that point I’d never knowingly heard Angel Olsen, so it wasn’t her – though I’ve since bought her new record and there’s a definite similarity. Tom said St Vincent, but that didn’t scratch the itch either.)

Puberty 2 is incredibly hooky; this year it’s Mitski’s tunes that are buzzing around my head: from the gentle refrain of “I Bet On Losing Dogs” to the thrashy, discordant blasphemy of “My Body Is Made Of Crushed Little Stars” and the poppy rush of “Happy”. If I was 17 rather than 37 I think I’d be soaking this album in, playing it over and over again and using it as a scab and a balm and an exorcism. As it is I’m just appreciating it on some kind of artistic level, and faintly wishing I was 20 years younger.

I doubt the others can even remember it by now…

ANOHNI – Hopelessness: Round 92, Nick’s choice

a1895762218_10Hopelessness 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!