- "We are all Americans now," sings Anohni on "Marrow," from her new album Hopelessness. She doesn't mean it as a compliment. At the end of two disappointing Obama terms, as the US deals with its shrinking global influence and toxic domestic politics, the former leader of Antony & The Johnsons is asking where it all went wrong. She itemises the country's wrongs—drone warfare, state surveillance, capital punishment, a blindness towards climate change—and suggests that much of the world is following the US's destructive lead. It's clearly a heartfelt view, and most people who consider themselves left wing would share it. So where does Hopelessness go wrong?
Not with the music itself, whose glittering surfaces are a pleasure to the ears. Anohni has swapped her usual chamber-pop for a brace of beats from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Both producers are skilled at bringing mainstream and leftfield together, and HudMo in particular is on brilliant form. The music is grand, euphoric and gaudily synthetic, and Anohni's celestial warble sounds as comfortable in its new home as it did 11 years ago on I Am A Bird Now.
The style shift is tactical: the music is a "Trojan horse" to smuggle in the political message. And it's the message that's the problem. The Trojan horse analogy suggests something sneaky and concealed. In fact, Anohni's views are often so bluntly expressed that they block out everything else. Her main lyrical mode is sledgehammer irony, as on the triple threat of "Execution," about capital punishment ("Have no mercy on me / Please have no mercy"); "Watch Me," directed at the NSA ("I know you love me / Cause you're always watching me"); and "4 Degrees," a reference to this century's predicted rise in global temperature ("I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil"). Saying the exact opposite of what you think is only slightly more interesting than just saying what you think. On repeat listens it begins to seem less so.
Anohni joked in one interview that she wrote the album's lyrics in "three minutes," and her passionate views are often undermined by the way they're expressed. The album is full of clunky non-rhymes and tortuous wordings. "Watch Me" includes the line, "'Case I'm involved in child molesters," an ugly contortion to fit a stiff lyric scheme. Much of "Obama" is spent with long, melismatic repetitions of the POTUS's name. Surely there are more effective ways to have a go at him.
These details are aggravating because, behind them, you can sometimes glimpse the brilliant album Hopelessness might have been. The biggest hint is "Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?," an environmentalist's lament over a HudMo beat bursting with romanticism. Anohni slips into a more poetic style, and words and music suddenly mesh. Good pop is often pliable, its message broad or ambiguous enough for listeners to flex it to their taste. Political pop can be like this without compromising its message, but most of Hopelessness has no interest in pliability. It regards its audience as either fervent believers in Anohni's cause or a pop mass in need of blunt polemic. We might all be "Americans," but we're not that homogenous.
01. Drone Bomb Me
02. 4 Degrees
03. Watch Me
05. I Don't Love You Anymore
07. Violent Men
08. Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?