Anohni didn't reinvent the wheel on her new album, but she did get it spinning in another direction.
"Sometimes a feeling is reason enough." It's about a third of the way into transgender artist Anohni's latest album, the ultra-politicized Hopelessness that we find our way to this bold proclamation. Though the specific meaning of the line inside the ironically exuberant "Execution" isn't quite what you'd expect, in context of the album the line seems to have much larger implications. Hopelessness is an album that constantly tries to get a message across, but it doesn't mean to do so by sounding like a lengthy article or a piece of legislature. Anohni instead achieves her goals through storytelling and persona songs, evoking emotion and empathy long before the song hits as a political statement. With these tools at her disposal, she aims her music at the heart. It's from there that she works her way to the brain.
Nowhere on the album is this plainer to see than on opener "Drone Bomb Me". Anohni takes on the persona of a six-year-old girl riddled by despair after losing her family to drone bombs. Though the song is just four-minutes long, Anohni's multidimensional character takes us on an emotional journey so strong that before you can think of anything else, you'll note that something is definitely wrong here. This is the power of Hopelessness. The album doesn't exist as a theoretical facet of academia, removed from the world it describes. It sits right at the heart of reality.
What might seem surprising on the album is the lack of a transgender rights anthem, but for now, Anohni seems content in lending her voice to others. In some cases though, that means writing and performing as the oppressor to make a point, and at other times, you just might have to admit that the oppressor is you. Take club anthem "4 Degrees" for example, a song highlighting the harmful and selfish effects of climate change, including Anohni's contributions to the rising temperatures. The song functions as a wake-up call to the real-world implications of her actions. How she addresses this is where it gets really interesting though. Anohni personifies her actions and the role she's played into a character, laying lines like "I wanna burn the sky / I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees" over the fierce percussion and tense synths.
Similarly intriguing devices run rampant on the album as Anohni always has a fresh way to make her point. The irresistibly buoyant cut "Execution" and hyper-sexualized "Watch Me" are superb examples of her lyrical prowess as she tackles capital punishment and government surveillance respectively. The way she does so is by following a character that, while falling victim to these methods, is begging for them. It's almost uncomfortable to hear someone facing the death penalty say things like "Please don't have mercy" or "If Europe takes it away inject me with something else." It's even more unsettling in the case of a surveillance victim as Anohni refers to the government as "Daddy" and sings lines like "Watch me watching pornography" and "I know you love me cause you're always watching me." "Crisis" on the other hand takes the story away from a character and forces it onto the listeners, asking "If I killed your children with a drone bomb / How would you feel?" and features Anohni choking out the words "If I tortured your brother in Guantanamo / I'm sorry."
Though Hopelessness owes an enormous amount to its lyrics, don't be fooled into thinking that's all the album is good for. Co-produced by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, the album is a wonderful showcase of electronic music and the flexibility the genre contains. Songs like "Execution" and "Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth" are pieces of pop perfection with their glistening synth lines and grand, emotive choruses, while "Drone Bomb Me" and "4 Degrees" are much heavier cuts with powerful synth brass and weighted percussion. "Obama", on the other hand, sounds like ritual music with its dark organ and choir backing and couldn't be any further away from the aforementioned pop songs. One thing they all have in common though is how well the music projects the heightened emotions on the album, working hand-in-hand with the lyrics.
For an album containing a multitude of familiar conventions, Hopelessness somehow remains a fresh and unique experience. While Anohni is hardly the only person in the business to be using characters and pushing electronic boundaries, the way she strings together so many diverse characters and styles with such unity is astounding. After listening to Hopelessness, it's clear Anohni did not reinvent the wheel with her music. What she did do was get the wheel to start spinning in another direction. With any luck, maybe she can convince society to follow her lead.