A few years ago, I went to see Listener and ‘68 play in my hometown. While both of their sets were enjoyable, what stuck out to me the most that night was one of their opening acts, a musician named Derek Zanetti going under the name of The Homeless Gospel Choir. His music was both serious and comical in nature, but many of the songs he played that night he introduced as “protest songs”. This was my first genuine experience with vivid protest music. Zanetti had a way of making the audience feel what he felt while doing so under a more often than not optimistic backdrop. I was impressed, to say the least. Surprisingly, that’s as far as my experience with protest music went at the time, but it made me think of other ways a message contrary to the norm could be sonically conveyed. While protest music has taken a variety of forms across a multitude of genres, some often get overlooked. When was the last time you heard an electronic protest song? If you haven’t, and this is something that interests you, perhaps ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS might be worth checking out. Formerly Antony Hegarty, ANOHNI released a handful of albums with her band Antony & The Johnsons. Produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, HOPELESSNESS is her first solo album and her first as ANOHNI. Touching on a variety of subjects such as drone warfare, climate change, government surveillance, and exploitative patriarchal violence, the album is relentless and dynamic.
Opener “Drone Bomb Me” is told from the perspective of a young Afghan girl whose family has been murdered by a drone. Devastated, she begs for the same fate, for the drone to “blow my head off, explore my crystal guts”. Backed by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never’s impressive production, ANOHNI’s vocals are captivating and emotional as she presents this story to the listener in the most striking way possible; with brutal and unrelenting honesty. Said honesty carries into following track “4 Degrees”, as she sings about the apathy of humankind with regards to climate change. The underlying strings and horns combine with the grandiose percussion and electronics to sonically convey the impact of our arrogance. For added effect, ANOHNI beings to name off all that society could lose if nothing changes. It’s as vivid as its predecessor, and is one of many highlights on the record. “Watch Me” dives into the subject of government surveillance as she sings “watch me in my hotel room… watch me watching pornography… I know you love me, ‘Cause you’re always watching me”. While one might make light of ANOHNI referring to Big Brother as “Daddy” or her sarcasm with lines like “‘Cause I’m involved with evil, ‘Cause I’m involved with terrorism, ‘Cause I’m involved with child molesters…”, she certainly doesn’t. Multiple listens cemented this as one of my favorites. “Execution” ponders the cruelty of the death penalty in democratic settings, and while it’s lyrically a little more simplistic than some of the other tracks, the production is quite impressive, and deserves multiple listens.
“I Don’t Love You Anymore” is the only song on HOPELESSNESS that shies away from being a protest song, but the soft underlying organ and electronic elements draw the listener in anyway. They build to an abrupt, electronic percussion-driven ending that segues into following track “Obama”, in which ANOHNI sings about her disappointment with the Obama administration; once a symbol of hope, her opinions shifted due to increased government surveillance, drone warfare, and ostracism of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Musically, the track is the least-listenable on the record due to its layers of distortion and noise, but it’s definitely not a terrible song either. “Violent Men” is the shortest and lyrically the most simplistic song on the album, but it’s still quite honest as ANOHNI sings about her distrust of the patriarchy and its attitudes towards women. Impressive production keeps the listener intrigued on this cut. “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” follows and continues with more intricate production, but what’s interesting about this track is that it’s the most musically optimistic out of the rest of the songs. The prominent, marimba-like keys and sweeping underlying synthesizers played in G major are striking in comparison to the message of the song, in which ANOHNI is simultaneously frustrated with the patriarchy and continual environmental dangers.
“Crisis” acts as apology to several countries/peoples as ANOHNI details different scenarios in which the United States has stood careless in the face of crisis, such as continual drone warfare, torture in Guantanamo, terrorism, etc. The most striking part of the song is near the end where after her continual use of “I’m sorry”, her voice begins to break as if she were in tears. This is then followed by several layers of beautiful production, finishing out one of the album’s best tracks. The title track finds ANOHNI asking “How did I become, The mother of this son?, The face and mind, and hands of virulence?… How did I become a virus?”, once again addressing human apathy. The underlying production is both smooth and bubbly, and it’s personally my favorite vocal performance on the record. Closing track “Marrow” finds ANOHNI comparing the Earth to a cancer-stricken woman, and after seeing firsthand the continual abuse and simultaneous disregard of society, she proclaims “We are all Americans now”. It’s an odd but effective way to end the record.
HOPELESSNESS is not meant for every listener. Since 10 out of the 11 tracks are explicitly protest songs, some might find ANOHNI’s work to be pandering to a specific audience and overbearing at times. Still, there’s still a lot to be said about the care that ANOHNI, Hudson Mohawke, and Oneohtrix Point Never put into this record. The lyricism might be occasionally simplistic, but it’s conscious without a doubt. The accompanying musical elements are visceral and drive her point home even more. At times where music is infatuated with the monotony of sex and drugs, HOPELESSNESS is ironically a saccharine breath of fresh air.[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Pei4SnavUk[/youtube]