15 Jan 2017

Albums of 2016: ANOHNI's Hopelessness

Long-term readers of this blog will know that there is no artist whose work I return to more obsessively than Anohni. As such, she’s the artist who forces me to break my own rules most flagrantly, when it comes to discussing consecutive albums in terms of a ‘career arc’: that ubiquitous one-size-fits-all narrative that I’d usually consider a reductive, insightless crutch.

Anohni’s work—with Antony & the Johnsons and now as a solo artist—has always had a strong conceptual identity and purpose, as suggested by her strident interview statements and her proximity to the art world. For me, the explicit positioning of Hopelessness as a ‘political’ record—a collection of ‘protest songs’—has only clarified the political potential inherent throughout Anohni’s previous work. Indeed, I hear Hopelessness as an album about Anohni as activist: revisiting the political potential of her work as it has evolved across ten years, weighing this potential against the demands of a catastrophic present, and using it to articulate a rich and radical theory of politicised hopelessness.

At every stage, the crucial element has been Anohni’s physical presence (as voice) within the worlds of her songs. As an unmistakable, entirely singular vocal presence, Anohni can never appear on her tracks as ‘this-or-that type of voice’—she can never simply ‘fit’ into a genre or style, and therefore always retains her queerness within the space and time of the song—but this also means that her music is perfect for thinking about voices-as-such. On Hopelessness, Anohni’s voice appears and acts on each track in a different way, performing a variety of different ‘protest’ tactics, while simultaneously speaking to the value and limits of certain forms of queer/gendered knowledge, in relation to broader political imaginaries.

With its conceptual richness, Hopelessness came as a total gift to me, deeply invested as it is in all my personal areas of interest: political music, queer music, and the voice. What’s more, it is beautiful and audacious and desolate, it makes me cry without fail, it is probably Anohni’s best album since Antony & the Johnsons’ eponymous debut (which is, on certain days, my favourite album ever), and it was (possibly) my favourite album of 2016.

I— Dance of Death Drive (‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘4 Degrees’, ‘Watch Me’, ‘Execution’)

My interpretation of Hopelessness involves a division of the album into three main sections—the tracks grouped into four, three and three—with the final track as a one-song epilogue. These three sections retrace an evolution in the focus of Anohni’s musical activism, from ‘queer negativity’ to ‘future feminism’, via a transitional sequence. As such, the album speaks to the artist’s own transition, whose mediatised form as public event (the ‘launch’ of a new name, artistic project and pronoun, prior to the album’s release) should not be allowed to erase a trans identity that has been explored with incredible candour and nuance over the course of her entire oeuvre, in relation to such categories as maleness and femaleness, nature and religion, homosexuality and feminism.

The album opens with the single ‘Drone Bomb Me’, whose lyrics—begging for death from above—are supposedly delivered from the perspective of ‘a 9-year old girl in Afghanistan’, whose family were killed in a drone attack. This explanation, given by Anohni in an interview (a politicising intervention that removes any ambiguity regarding the song’s position), was reproduced in many of the reviews of the album, and came to define the reception of the album’s politics as a whole. While clarifying and sharpening the edge of that particular single, the suggestion that each song should be heard in this manner, as if written from different ‘character’ voices or subject positions, risks overlooking the strong links between ‘Drone Bomb Me’ and much of Anohni’s previous work.

Indeed, ‘Drone Bomb Me’ is the first of four consecutive songs that explore ‘negative’ desires. In the interview quoted above, Anohni also describes ‘Drone Bomb Me’ as a ‘love song’, and all of these songs indulge in a subject position familiar from early songs like ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ and ‘Fistful Of Love’, expressing a masochistic desire for domination, pain, and ultimately (as she sang on ‘My Lady Story’), annihilation. This tendency is perhaps clearest on the exhibitionism of ‘Watch Me’, with the singer imploring an all-seeing ‘Daddy’ to ‘watch me in my hotel room’, but it is just as apparent on ‘Execution’, where the singer begs: ‘Please don’t have mercy on me’. The straightforward ‘character’ hearing of ‘Drone Bomb Me’ is itself complicated by lines like ‘I want to be the apple of your eye’, while ‘Lay my purple on the ground’ reminds me of a line from ‘Epilepsy Is Dancing’ from The Crying Light (2009): ‘Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner’.

Certainly, parodying a negative position for rhetorical effect is nothing new; almost all political musicians indulge in this strategy, as a way of avoiding the kind of righteous earnestness whose affective and pedagogical range is limited. However, Anohni’s approach here is more complicated than parody or sarcasm, in that it engages real patterns of desire. Her first few records as Antony & the Johnsons, brimming with melancholy, fragility and failure, explored the relation between queerness and the death drive. This link has been notoriously theorised by writers like Lee Edelman, whose No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive positions queerness as anti-future. For Edelman, the queer rejection of futurity is a rejection of a socio-cultural logic that privileges reproduction and the reproductive, subordinating present welfare and justice to the imaginary needs of future children. On her early albums and EPs, Anohni similarly perched on the brink of disintegration and death, affirming the impossibility of her belonging to a social ‘life’ predicated on heteronormativity and reproduction. Instead, she models a delicate and subtly gothic ‘undead’ existence, testifying to the delicious jouissance of self-obliteration, while ultimately subsisting within her own fragile hope for transformation or rebirth.

This tactic of ‘no future’ queerness returns on Hopelessness; yet, by feeding these individual desires through the collective frames of state power and violence, Anohni critiques their political pertinence. ‘4 Degrees’ give the clearest example of this; after an initial explosion of thunderous drums and synths, the track executes a slow build-up of propulsive elements, rushing towards a catastrophic conclusion: climate chaos and mass extinction. ‘Let’s go, let’s go’: the lyrics express a desire to accelerate towards death, with the final chorus and its flailing, scorching synthline pushing the whole texture off the proverbial cliff.

Yet beneath the accelerationist fury of the synth lead, strings and voice, there rolls a brassy bass line that speaks more of intractability, with its terminal falling fourth lending it an anticlimactic ‘plagal’ feel. Against this painfully measured bass and its repetitive cycling, the voice’s forward thrust (reaching every beat a little early, producing syncopated suspensions that clash keenly with the underlying harmony) suggests an attempt to clutch at whatever little control remains available, crashing a ship that is bound to sink anyway. On top of this, we can also hear ‘4 Degrees’ in terms of a masochistic wish on behalf of the feminine Earth, with whom Anohni explicitly identifies. It is a desperately sad song, for the very reason that it is not sarcastic but is instead invested with a real desire that is painfully familiar: the desire to give up on a poisoned future and collapse into ecstatic oblivion (the kind of oblivion that is hinted at far more optimistically on ‘Rapture’, on Antony & The Johnsons).

However, as with the other three songs in this first part of the record, the vocal embodies the erotic desire for a violent status quo: a desire that clearly leads to further spirals of violence and destruction. Such desires are real, Anohni proposes—after all, they must be. If we didn’t desire our collective subjugation and destruction, why would we allow such things to happen? (Anohni attested as much when she ‘found Hitler in her heart’, back on the 1998 debut album.) Still, the consequences of these desires are dire. What’s more, as with the frantic accelerationism of ‘4 Degrees’, the vocals on these tracks betray a lack of any real agency. Vocal lines are moulded around insistent and chaotic beats, relating and responding to them without determining them. These first four tracks therefore offer a critique of the nihilism inherent in an erotics of pure negativity.

Suffer little animals (a further note on ‘4 Degrees’)

At this stage, it is crucial to point out that Anohni’s implied exit from this queer nihilism manages to avoid any investment in the figure of the Child or human reproductivity—‘the fascism of the baby’s face’, as Edelman calls it—by focusing on animals (and the personification of the Earth) as victims. By describing the death and grief of animals rather than people in ‘4 Degrees’, she achieves a few different things. For one thing, she avoids explicitly calling for the deaths of humans, which would push the song to a whole new level of extremity (this arguably reveals the limits of the rhetorical function of such a subject position). Yet by naming individual species—‘rhinos’, ‘lemurs’, ‘dogs’, ‘big mammals’—she accesses a poignancy that might be unavailable were she singing about the masses of humanity. This is because animal species are both diverse and familiar (indeed, the images of animals are used as icons of diversity, from early childhood when they are used to differentiate between arbitrary words). At the same time, discrete animals species are also supposedly immortal (in that we hope that each species will always exist in its uniqueness); in contrast, humans are only diverse on an individual level, or as grouped by profession/social status, and they are familiar only personally or through their celebrity. What’s more, while human lives are generally acknowledged to be more valuable than those of animals, it is also acknowledged that all humans will die, whereas animals, grouped in terms of species, are not supposed to die. It is not deemed ‘natural’.

Hence, entire animal species are shown to be more grievable than individual humans, or even masses of humans, who will die eventually anyway. Likewise, while the animals here are anthropomorphised (the rhinos ‘lie crying in the fields’), they are also presumed to be innocent, and certainly exempt from the perverse human desires that characterise the death drive and the erotics of submission. With the invocation of these animals in all their specificity, Anohni invokes a challenging ethics that introduces into this vortex of self-destruction and collective punishment questions about the ecological self as part of nature and about the human collectivity as animal species.

II— Change We Need (‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, ‘Obama’, ‘Violent Men’)

The next song, ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, brings with it a change of gear that demarcates the central section: an extraordinary trio of songs that resonate together only retrospectively, forming the album’s transitional sequence. Unlike the first four beat-led tracks, ‘I Don’t Love You…’ is launched by the voice, announcing the titular phrase. The song proceeds via a consistent four-phrase melody, pitched relatively low in her register; it is rare for Anohni to be constrained by such a regular phrase structure and, particularly, such a rigid rhyme scheme. Here, it feels like an imposition: the vocal feels awkward, reaching for rhymes that sound forced, stretching words to fit the melodic contour. There is a feeling of her being trapped by the need to produce an explanation beyond the titular phrase that she ends up returning to obsessively: a phrase whose performative weight will always be more powerful than any attempt at explication.

This obsessiveness over a single phrase is reminiscent of another song whose title constitutes a performative declaration: the touching and bizarre ‘Thank You For Your Love’ from Swanlights (2010). While the coda of that song involved a kind of modular refraction of the refrain into paroxysms of gratitude, the repetition of ‘I don’t love you anymore’ makes a cage out of the song’s rhyme scheme, resulting in the final elliptical repetition of ‘If you showed up at my door…’, which ultimately fails to provide any closure.

The restrained explanation of ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ ultimately breaks down and crumbles into the chaos of ‘Obama’, the shadow of the previous song. Again, it is driven by the voice, repeating a melodic formula that traces the shape of the title phrase, digging down even deeper into Anohni’s vocal register. The melodies of the two songs echo each other, and there is some assonance between the ‘don’t’ of the ‘I Don’t Love You…’ and the long, melismatic ‘O’ of ‘Obama’. However, where melodic repetition previously functioned as an attempt to unpack an emotional state in a reticent and defensive fashion, here it operates as a kind of incantation. Whereas before, the melodic scheme imposed a certain ideological form on the voice’s action—that of song-as-profound-emotional-confession—which Anohni’s words ultimately failed to fulfil, in ‘Obama’ the melodic formula—especially when set to the pure phonemes of the president’s name—carries a kind of magical autonomy, bestowing an excess power on whichever words are uttered. And we can hear this power in the effect that subsequent phrases have on the contents of the dark ambient cauldron into which they’re cast: each new phrase causes a transfiguration of the harmony and/or texture of the track.

The result of this track sequencing is that we hear the previous track, retrospectively, as also being about Obama. Anohni’s ultimately ineffective appeal to him on a personal, affective level—on the level, perhaps, of liberal America’s love affair with their new leader back in 2008—is displaced by a far more radical denunciation, even suggesting a kind of Wiccan hex (Anohni has previously described herself as a witch, having ‘de-baptised’ herself). This ultimately suggests a shift in political investment from the personal to the collective. Most poignantly for me, the final utterance in ‘Obama’ conjures up a sparse piano texture reminiscent of the early Antony & the Johnsons albums, which here remains vacant. The fragile, undead Anohni is missing from the piano stool, vanished from this musical photograph of the past.

The final track of this sequence, ‘Violent Men’, gives a hint as to where she might have gone. The screwed-up vocals and production give the impression of a missive from the future, decoded from a scrambled signal: ‘We will never again/Give birth to violent men’. Or perhaps it is a transmission from the past: the backwards-sounding melody resembles plainchant, as well as invoking other such ‘future feminist’ bands as the Knife. As the singer threatens on the next song, ‘I’ll be born into the past/I’m never coming home’: we could hear ‘Violent Men’ as the blueprint for a feminist scheme of sci-fi insurgency, travelling back in time to prevent the birth of the ‘violent’ Obama and, perhaps, the drone bomb incident that set the whole album in motion. In its own way, it fits into the ‘no future’, anti-reproductive radicalism of queer negativity, but tailored to serve an explicitly anti-patriarchal purpose.

We can thus hear this central section in terms of a transition from a personal, embodied politics of queer negativity to a collective, post-human politics of future feminism, with the discredited figure of President Obama as the fulcrum. From the liberal personality cult whose disappointment is registered in ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, Anohni arrives at a starkly radical manifesto, delivered in the first-person plural, whose target is neither Obama-the-man nor Obama-the-politician, but the patriarchy in general.

III— No Future Feminism (‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?’, ‘Crisis’, ‘Hopelessness’)

If the first four songs on Hopelessness revisited the gothic negativity of Anohni’s first two albums, then here we arrive at her verdant third and fourth albums—the post-natal depression of a melancholic Mother Earth, the bittersweet farewell of The Crying Light’s ‘Another World’—along with the 2012 live album Cut The World. As well as featuring the ‘Future Feminism’ monologue, in which Anohni discusses some of her beliefs concerning gender, religion, politics and ecology, Cut The World’s title track explicitly critiques the kind of masochist desire explored on songs like ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ (the next song on the set list): ‘For so long I’ve obeyed that feminine decree/I’ve always contained your desire to hurt me/But when will I turn and cut the world?’

‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?’ restates this eco-feminist philosophy in no uncertain terms, with Anohni returning to a beat-driven songworld with a newfound agency: a transformation that is immediately implied by the song’s refreshing major key. Instead of dancing and weeping in the deluge of electronic ash and acid rain that characterises the early moments of the album, here we can hear Anohni painting the sound herself, solidifying the contours of a warm and strangely hopeful bassline with every rearticulation of the accusatory titular question. She rides the foam of the production, leaving in her wake a trailing vision of the idyllic past into which she hopes to disappear. The shimmering beauty of this vision contrasts with the ‘Angel of History’-style shards of destruction that are flung out in the lyrics, encapsulating the mysterious contortions of chronological desire that are produced from the synthesis of a ‘future feminism’ that rejects futurity in favour of an impossible intervention into the past.

With ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?’, eroticised passivity is supplanted by a kind of impossible sci-fi activism—a different modality of hopelessness—which nevertheless preserves some form of agency. This prepares the album’s most powerful and beautiful moment, and the heart of its musical activism, ‘Crisis’, on which the singer (in barely coded terms) offers an apology to ISIS for Western imperialist aggressions, by taking the blame onto herself. It would be a radical gesture in any medium, and the substitution of the title word appears to have shielded against the potential fallout from such a gesture, but the sung repetition of the word ‘sorry’ makes all the more poignant the status of such performative utterances as activism (and thus, the action of singing). Along with the aforementioned ‘thank you’ in ‘Thank You For Your Love’, and the keening ‘please’ on ‘Execution’, Anohni’s repeated ‘sorry’ functions here as a sort of pure performance of performativity—or enaction of action—pushing at the limits of the pop song’s fictional frame, to imagine its real-world potentiality. But a pop song is still a fiction. Remaining within this mode of fantasy activism, ‘Crisis’ performs its own imagined success, with the apologies giving way to one of OPN’s blissful, starry-eyed apotheoses—a utopian image of reconciliation, rendered in heart-wrenchingly earnest, rose-tinted synths—and filling the voice with wordless exuberance.

As a finale to this third section, ‘Hopelessness’ provides a kind of commentary on the album as a whole, performed by an omnipotent vocal that carves its way through the electronic debris of a cold, entropic songworld. Here, we are treated to the singer’s most straightforward, sober take on a political strategy of hopelessness. She expresses the blame that she feels, personally and on the part of all humanity, for the state of the world; she repeats a queerly anti-reproductive position, describing humanity as a ‘virus’ and coldly stating: ‘I don’t care much about you/I don’t give a shit what happens to you now’. In this sense, any hope for the survival of earth (and specifically ‘the animals in the trees’, which are Anohni’s main concern) requires a total hopelessness for humanity: the eradication of this virus, a Children of Men-style denial of its perpetuation (and Edelman specifically targets this text in his anti-reproductive polemic).

I don't want your future,
I'll be born before you're born
—'Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?'

We could interpret Anohni’s hopelessness in a less nihilistic way though, especially when heard through the prism of the relatively hopeful ‘Future Feminism’. The queer hopelessness that pervades the album perversely points to other (perverse) modes of hope, which can only be accessed through various ‘negative’ positions, many of them fundamentally queer. The kinds of change that are needed to prevent climate catastrophe, or to halt US imperialism and mend global relations, are also the kinds that require an abandonment of certain forms of certainty, particularly for the most privileged. We must commit to the knowledge that things aren’t going to get better in the way they used to, and that ‘blind’ hope—that the necessary transformations can be achieved via ethical consumption, or market-led green innovation, or the imposition of democratic regimes in unstable regions, or voting for a centrist party with the belief that they'll slide leftwards—is no longer useful.

There is anger on Hopelessness, and blame is apportioned, but the most powerful sentiment is that of a collective self-abnegation, performed on Anohni’s sonic body. This is the annihilation of all forms of pride, of the need to be aggressive, to fight back and perpetuate the cycle of violence, and to always be right, when that generally means being cynical. But it is also a conflagration of the kind of ‘straight’ certainties that theorists like Jack Halberstam have shown to be the site of queer exclusion and failure. It is the annihilation of our need for—and the straight/white/cis/male ‘right’ to—success, respectability, getting ahead, achieving our goals and living our dreams, being the best we can be, making our parents proud, excelling in our field, reaping our rewards, having our hard work pay off, etc. In other words, what we must collectively destroy is the sense of our birthright to a future, to our children’s future, to progress, to reproduction and futurity in general. Humanity as a whole is not owed a future. We cannot merely expect futurity to be bestowed onto us; instead, we must fight for the privilege of futurity, and that means respecting each other and the world we occupy, in the here-and-now.

Hopelessness presents us with a critique and revision of a particular politics of negativity, and its musical praxis subsumes this negativity into a broader eco-feminist philosophy. Anohni’s Christ-like performance of annihilation is queer in its relation to failure, to anti-normativity, and to an erotics of self-destruction, vulnerability and abjection. Yet it is the Earth, not humanity, that is to be saved, and an Earth Goddess, rather than a ‘Sky God’, in whose name it is enacted. Taken as a whole, Hopelessness as a political text might therefore give some clues towards what Anohni calls ‘feminine systems of governance’. On ‘Future Feminism’, after discussing her interest in ‘the feminisation of the deities’ and ‘Jesus as a girl’, Anohni says the following:
I truly believe that, unless we move into feminine system of governance, we don’t have a chance on this planet. And there’s no one else that can lead the masses to do that except for the major religious institutions. I’m someone that’s looking for a reason to hope, and for me, hope looks like feminine systems of governance being instated in the major religious institutions and throughout corporate and civil life.
On Hopelessness, ‘Crisis’ appears as the most radical gesture in an emergent praxis of feminine activism, and the most concrete model of such a gesture: the deployment of radical emotional intelligence and empathy as a basis for action. This action then involves the prostration of the singer in front of the Other, in flagrant contradiction of all the ‘homonationalist’ injunctions, which use the violently misogynist and anti-gay tendencies of certain Islamists as an excuse to erase their humanity and as a justification for further violence. ‘Crisis’ is hopeful, because it dares to imagine a reconciliation through an act of emotional openness and vulnerability, thus pointing towards a possible exit from the apparently ineluctable cycles of violence. And even to articulate such a utopian gesture takes us one step beyond hopelessness. Perhaps it’s time, as Anohni sang on Swanlights’ ‘Salt Silver Oxygen’, to ‘Elect the Salt Mother/For She’s a Selective Christ’.

Epilogue— ‘Marrow’

But that’s not it. There’s one more song.

‘Marrow’ serves as the eerie and ambiguous epilogue to the album. To me, it sounds extraordinarily like a Hayden Thorpe-fronted Wild Beasts track, and takes on some of the connotations of that band’s work. The repeating two-note motif that begins each vocal phrase suggests an animal call. In combination with the opening lyric—‘In the countryside/Under the streets’—it evokes the post-apocalyptic trace of hidden habitation: one lone survivor calling to another. It reminded me of the end of McCarthy’s The Road, with its cryptically hopeful final line that catapults the reader into the mists of a primordial future: ‘In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.’

This ‘animal-call’ motif disrupts the flow of lyrics that clearly do not reflect such hopefulness, but suggest instead a return to the death drive of the opening songs, with the devastation of the earth described in terms of the desecration of a (female) body: ‘Suck the marrow out of her bones’. In this sense, the echoes of Wild Beasts resonate as much for that band’s connotations of dancing-dick masculinity as for their moonstruck lycanthropy. Maintaining this interpretation, ‘Marrow’ becomes the moment of true hopelessness, in which even the wisdom of self-knowledge and the hope of a fugitive negativity has been forgotten.

The music maintains this ambivalence between post-apocalyptic stillness and the stirring of clandestine possibility. All drama has been expended by now, and both vocal melody and accompaniment are suspended in an ambiguous loop, pulling between the suggested B-flat major of the vocal and the suggested G minor of the bass line, finally coming to rest on a deeply inconclusive E-flat. Still, I’m someone who’s looking for a reason to hope, and I prefer to hear this epilogue in terms of a strange but uncontainable musical potentiality that pushes through the bleakness of the lyrics, calling out in that two-note motif to a hope not yet fully born. This would be a potentiality that doesn’t ignore, cover up or sugarcoat the bleakness of the present, but nevertheless reaches through despair to the other side: to that something else, still unknown and perhaps even inconceivable, which crouches next to oblivion and hums of mystery.