Albums of 2016 (#8): Anohni – Hopelessness

Hopeless times need music too. Anohni teamed up with OPN and HudMo to produce one of the most startling records of recent years

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 28 Nov 2016

Music is often the crutch that helps us hobble through the tough times. It lifts us to the fabled other side, where the grass is greener and the air is easier to breathe. But there are times when the earth is scorched and toxicity pervades the atmosphere about us. Many of us now exist in such a time. The past months have left us sucking on sulphur, bashing our heads off the brimstone. These are hopeless times. But times like these need music too.

It seems impossible to hear Anohni’s Hopelessness outside of the prism of Trump and Brexit; away from the fact that perhaps the only, tiniest morsel of salvation from the past 12 months – the Paris Agreement on climate change – is now likely to be incinerated with the same gleeful disregard as we burn our skies, our trees and our lungs.

These are songs about genocides, drone strikes, executions and temperatures rising. Many are aimed at the Obama administration, which will likely be repainted as a progressive paradise in the years to come, but which has been as brutal in its embrace of airstrikes, civilian killings and immigrant deportations as any other.

And despite Anohni herself telling The Skinny that she does not feel these songs have further resonance in these increasingly dark days for society, it is difficult not to listen to these beautiful, haunting, visceral songs and feel a pang of anger.

“The idea wasn’t to predict the world’s current awareness of its feelings of hopelessness,” she says, but to “move through my own feelings of hopelessness to see if it left me feeling more empowered.”

The point on “awareness” of hopelessness is important: the world has been, arguably, drifting in a horrendous direction for some years. But in recent months, this has been manifested in a very public, ugly way. For Anohni, a transwoman residing in an America that’s awash with bigotry, these feelings must be suffocating.

There are parts of this album – particularly side two’s Obama, Crisis and Hopelessness – that are as potent political statements as have been put to wax in years. But one of the cornerstones of these songs is the fact that more than anybody else, Anohni blames herself. 'How did I become a virus?' she sings on the title track. We, through our consumptive habits, self-delusion and inability to engage with one another, are all complicit in society’s slide towards the detritus.

She explains, in an email exchange: “I have been trying to better understand what is actually happening, and what is my true part in it? I want to challenge my own inability to be vigorously honest with myself. So sick of denial and self-centered advocacy. In 50 years all anyone left is going to be asking is, 'What were we thinking? When we knew what was going down and we did almost nothing to change our course?' I want to ask that question now, in case there is still time to do something useful.”

She praises co-producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke for transforming this from what could very easily have been a gloomy record. “Both of them were entirely influential in the sound of the record. It’s their stuff. You know what kind of records I have made in the past. I added some bells and whistles and vocals. I wanted the sound to be exuberant, to stand in contrast to the lyrics.”

We’re left with an unusual beast: a dispiriting mirror to society that you can sing and dance along to; a collection of protest songs that rage as much against the author as they do the wider world; slices of fury, perfectly-formed and hummable. This, as much as any record of recent years, is the crystallised sound of our times. And it is beautiful, horrifying and vital.