Listening to Anohni’s (aka English born American Antony Hegarty) new album I can’t help thinking of a lyric on Bowie’s famous song Rebel Rebel – “… She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” For new comers they will most certainly think this. But to fans of her former group Antony and the Johnsons this will be no surprise. After all, the band was inspired by transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson and the group explored human relationships many times through that lens.
But with the Johnsons, the music had a wonderfully delicate, sometimes feminine quality about it. It was still quite clear that there was a woman behind the music, playing an elaborate range of characters – sometimes strong, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes a hero, sometimes a feminist, sometimes a lover, sometimes a man, sometimes a girl. Like Florence Welch, Anohni has a real feel for the dramatic, engaging swelling orchestral manoeuvres and crashing crescendos. So it’s both a revelation and a huge surprise that her new album, Hopelessness, comes across as so stark and on it she is so androgynous. To continue the Bowie link, this is her Berlin album. Her Low, perhaps. The song 4 Degrees is a bleak, thumping digital opus with a stark message about climate change: “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze, I wanna see the animals die in the trees”.
Even more chilling is Watch Me, with this strange, cold narrative about being watched at all times: reading, watching pornography, getting dressed, talking to friends. “Daddy, I know you love me because you’re always watching me”. It’s a creepy, but sexless delivery, backed by an even icier 80’s synthetic soundtrack. References to Visage’s Fade To Grey are likely to be deliberate. It’s the disturbing David Lynch soundtrack with a sinister undercurrent about the rights of women in the age of the digital eyeballs.
There are moments when the mask is lowered, if only temporarily. On I Don’t Love You Anymore, we get stark picture of a rejected lover hugging herself in a dark, lonely apartment, feeling empty and exposed. In her head, she runs through her hate list justifying the reasons for separation and progressing ever faster down the tunnel of self-loathing It’s a return of sorts to The Johnsons’ Thank You For Your Love – in reverse.
The most startling song here, though, is Obama which asks simply “What have you done since you took office?” The delivery is like some digital, impersonal jury drone chanting a series of failed accomplishments like the compromises on shutting down Guantanamo Bay. You can’t help thinking of Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque images of authority figures like the teacher from The Wall, sneering and spitting their contemptuous bile.
Another is the back loops that open Violent Man, which is again both chilling and challenging. It plays over again and again like that scene from the film Poltergeist when the TV stuck between channels – the spectre of repeat offences manifested in horror film tape cut’n’paste ups. There is much to explore here on the simple but intricately layered work. It’s not pretty but real life seldom is. “I don’t want your future, I’ll be born before you’re gone” she sings on Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth? You get the impression that Anohni is not happy with human kind – with its rules and regulations and its propensity to exploit everything. In the bleak there is beauty. With constant themes of hopelessness, loss and global climate Armageddon this is indeed an intensely black celebration.