[Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade; 2016]

Styles: protest, consciousness bangers, dance as weapon
Others: Björk, Nina Simone

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.

○ On the first four tracks of HOPELESSNESS, ANOHNI sets herself in a style of satiric melodrama to draw the spirit of capitalism to its emotional endpoints: deathwish, bloodlust, exhibitionism. Who passionately defends surveillance, remote warfare, or ecological destruction — do these statuses quo persist in the absence of passion?

○ This form of satire could easily veer into cheap irony, but goddamn if ANOHNI doesn’t pull it off as a genuine firestorm of emotion. More on that in a bit, but for now, let’s just say that the line “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze/ I wanna see the animals die in the trees” is delivered with such electricity it’s almost impossible not to do aerobic exercise when you hear it. And on “Watch Me,” when she refers to the surveillance state as “Daddy” (which in any other context would read as a joke), it’s dripping with lust. The whole song is pure sass in the best possible way.

○ In 2008, I was young enough that I don’t feel too bad about not having picked up on it, but the persona of Barack Obama was a contradictory one from the start. On the one hand, he was the post-partisan unifier who rejected the distinction of “blue” and “red” states at the 2004 DNC; on the other, he was a seemingly progressive champion who resolutely opposed the Iraq War and would be willing to go left of the Clinton orthodoxy. I think ANOHNI and I both fixated on the latter perception and were both sentimentally warmed by his “purple America” rhetoric, without realizing the extent to which his centrism and unwillingness to make enemies defined him. Eight years of hard lessons later, not only does a POTUS as progressive and as dovish as I dreamed of then seem impossible now, but even the idea of a conciliatory, post-ideological approach to politics seems equal parts quaint, naïve, and nauseating. ANOHNI’s blank yet menacing monotone on “Obama” combines this frustration with a seething energy I wish I could muster on demand.

○ ANOHNI’s vocal instrument is truly one of a kind, and no review of HOPELESSNESS would be complete without a vain attempt to describe it — my touchstone would be a more creamy, less smoky Nina Simone — but what I’m really blown away by (especially, but not exclusively, on HOPELESSNESS) is the emotional power in her delivery. The vocal runs here are relatively tame and far-between, but on tracks like “Crisis,” which builds to a tearful apology to the victims of America’s foreign adventures, the sheer pathos overshadows the considerable vocal agility. The performances in these songs are as dramatic as they are musical: disarmingly direct, phenomenally compelling.

○ Speaking of “Crisis,” the song ends with an extended saxophone riff that I totally didn’t see coming and adds a completely new dimension to the climax. Along with the big brass on “4 Degrees,” it’s a rare moment of analog sound on an otherwise beat- and synth-driven album, and it leaves me wishing there’d been more instrumental variation throughout. Having enlisted Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never for production, ANOHNI clearly envisioned this as a hard-hitting, electro-heavy project relative to her past work. The sound certainly makes a powerful first impression, but it loses some of its distinctiveness with repeated listens; fortunately, the same cannot be said of THAT VOICE.

○ Whether you’re taking HOPELESSNESS in isolation or in the context of ANOHNI’s/Antony’s past work, the old saw “The personal is political” seems relevant and enlightening. The lyrical content is obviously (if you’ve taken a look at the tracklist) more overtly political than any work Antony has ever released, and if her experience is like that of other trans women, a clear line between the private/personal and the public/political may not be a privilege ANOHNI has ever been afforded. However, “The personal is political” has usually been used to identify and analyze the political dimension of “private” matters (e.g., abortion, marriage, etc.), and from this perspective, HOPELESSNESS is an inversion, taking realities normally viewed through the prisms of “issues” and “politics” and repositioning them in an intimate emotional space. In other words, on HOPELESSNESS the political is personal. This outlook is important to take in a democracy, where state action is ostensibly an outcome of constituents’ consciences.

○ Taking this perspective, HOPELESSNESS is always and everywhere twinned with guilt, a central theme of the album’s three final songs (and, I think, a crucial but unacknowledged element in the reactionary populism currently coming to its purulent head in American politics — best to leave that aside for now). ANOHNI sings of personal responsibility for murder carried out in her name, then of despair at her own wretchedness (“How did I become a virus?”), then finally of penance by self-liquidation in the vein of Shaking the Habitual’s closer, “Ready to Lose.”

○ Protest songs tend unwittingly to have a kernel of optimism that blunts their critique, regardless of how shrill, eloquent, or concerned their singers are: As bad as things may be, protest is directed at some exterior target, therefore preserving one’s own moral clarity as a virtue and source of redemption. Not so with HOPELESSNESS. The nature of the evil that haunts the album (and, arguably, the planet) is universal, shared, and dyed in our wool as humans rather than a flaw in any particular individual. If these days are apocalyptic, it would be false solace to believe we’ll face judgment one by one.

Links: ANOHNI - Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade

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