Anohni used to dream of other worlds; now she confronts this one head-on. Her first solo album, Hopelessness, adopts the ugliest parts of the Obama years — government surveillance, drone warfare, climate crisis — as its backdrop. But these aren’t protest songs, not in the traditional sense. They’re more like love songs. Much as she did with abusive relationships with her former band Antony and the Johnsons (see 2000's “Cripple and the Starfish” and 2005's “Fistful of Love”), Anohni now floods horrific scenes of global violence with currents of desire and sensuality. She goes beyond assuming responsibility for the sins of the Earth. In an outpouring of surreal masochism, she pleads for them.
“Choose me tonight,” she begs an unmanned aerial vehicle in “Drone Bomb Me.” “Explode my crystal guts.” The obliteration that Anohni imagines in this song plays out as a religious experience, her glittering remains mingling with the shrapnel on the side of a mountain. While it’s surely easier for a white British-American artist to fantasize about drone targeting than, say, American Muslims with relatives living overseas, Anohni pleads with the sky to fall on her instead of them: “After all, I’m partly to blame.” She dissects another kind of guilt on the eruptive “4 Degrees,” egging on global warming as though the Earth couldn’t scorch fast enough: “I want to see it boil.”
While Anohni’s work with the Johnsons couched its raw subject matter in jazz, rock, and gospel, these songs abandon most musical hallmarks of the 20th century. Pianos, strings, and horns are few and far between on Hopelessness; instead, she draws in conceptually experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never and The Life of Pablo collaborator Hudson Mohawke to cage her within simultaneously nightmarish and gorgeous electronics. This isn’t music that wants to sound timeless; it belongs in 2016, a time when digital consumers feed both their fears and their desires from the same pulsing network of information. Hopelessness is at once paranoid and ravenous for the destruction generated by the American status quo.
“We are all Americans now,” Anohni sings at the album’s closer, “Marrow,” a chilling indictment of globalization and the death it exports. Her voice sounds just as much at home in these pointedly artificial settings as it did against Antony and the Johnsons’ velvet drapes. It's rich, deliberate, and soulful, making her lust for death sound as natural as her yearning for companionship did on 2005’s "Hope There’s Someone."
With its anonymous murders abroad and its death sentences back home, America plays God all the time. On the record’s strangest track, “Obama,” Anohni drops her voice to a rumble, speaking to the president directly as if he could be brought to answer for the violence enforced in his name: “When you were elected / The world cried for joy ... Now, the news is you are spying / Executing without trial.” Compared to the ecstatic prayers of “Drone Bomb Me” and “4 Degrees,” “Obama” plays like a dirge, a song of mourning for all the hope promised in the president's 2008 campaign. The song's sheer bluntness can make it hard to swallow at first; Anohni doesn’t entertain any markers of traditional verse-chorus structure. She groans the same non-melody over and over again while the electronic chaos around her grows. But to give such an angry song a pleasant form would undermine its message. Anohni has been writing beautiful melodies for years, and her refusal to do so here hits like a pound of lead to the face.
Hopelessness has a sister in the last album from The Knife, 2013's chaotic and dystopian Shaking the Habitual. The Swedish band, too, critiqued the dynamics of capitalism through delayed gratification in their songwriting. We knew they could churn out icy hooks by the gallon, and they made us wait through 10-minute opuses of panicked noise instead. But hope flickered at the margins of that album: If the West could just change its behavior and untangle its consumption from the global web of death that supports it, maybe the world can still be saved. Hopelessness offers no such answers. We are not going to be all right.