One of the common misconceptions that has dogged Hopelessness since its announcement, is that it’s Anohni’s first political album. Her music has long contained themes about environmentalism and gender persecution, but what differentiates her older work from her new is the tone. Songs like Another World may be about the Earth being ravaged, but her specific style of baroque balladry lent them an impossibly intimate and personal sound, which made it easy for a listener to skip the political content in favour of pure emotionality. On, Hopelessness, Anohni is making sure that doesn’t happen.
Co-produced with acclaimed electronic artists Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, Hopelessness sounds entirely different to any of Anohni’s back-catalogue. The album resembles Kid A in its abandonment of lush instrumentation for harsh electronics. What separates Hopelessness from Radiohead’s classic, however, is that Anohni has deliberately written pop music.
Pre-release single Drone Bomb Me is an amazing achievement. Over Hudson Mohawke’s sparkling synthesisers and booming drums, Anohni sings (magnificently, as always) from the perspective of a child whose parents have been killed in a drone strike, having abandoned hope to the point she wants to join them – “I have a glint in my eye / I think I want to die”. Instead of coming across as a lecture, the song sounds impossibly soulful, largely due to Anohni’s choice to frame it as a twisted love song to the drone – “I want to be the apple of your eye”. In the disturbingly catchy chorus, she sings with illustrative lyrics – “explode my crystal guts / lay my purple on the ground” – that along with the grandiose handclaps and synth riffs, create something of a videogame fantasia. The effect renders the disturbing subject matter almost as gossamer, and getting caught up in the catchy melodies primes the listener for a cruel epiphany, as they remember what Anohni is actually singing about.
The three tracks that follow all follow a similar setup to Drone Bomb Me. 4 Degrees approaches global warming from a position of resigned guilt – “I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil”. The dramatic lyrics, along with the bombastic brass create an apocalyptic atmosphere, expanding the scope of the album, whilst maintaining a grounding in the personal. Watch Me sees Anohni singing flirtatiously with someone surveilling her, through lyrics drenched in sarcasm – “I know you love me / ‘cause you’re always watching me”. Execution examines America’s relationship with the death penalty over a chirpy synth beat, and the effect is chilling. Tellingly, the first four tracks are all Mohawke productions, and the second half of the album, largely from Oneohtrix Point Never, is quite different.
The one-two punch of Obama and Violent Men marks the most challenging stretch of the record. The former is almost entirely tuneless, comprised of distorted drones, juddering beats, and a monotone vocal line from Anohni. She sings about feeling let down by the eponymous president – “all the hope drained from your face / like children we believed”. The latter track’s meaning isn’t difficult to parse – “never again / give birth to violent men” – but the instrumentation is nervous and sharp, alternating between fuzzed-out synths, and plastic sounding beats. Both tracks are difficult listens, but feel important to the essential darkness of the record, presenting the content without the levity of the opening tracks.
The final sequence of the album explores the notion of complicity, with Anohni considering her own culpability as an American taxpayer. Crisis functions as a song-length apology, as she sings to those her leaders have hurt on her behalf – “if I killed your mother / with a drone bomb / how would you feel?” The string ornamentation builds drama throughout the track, and by the end all Anohni can do is cry “I’m sorry”. Listening, and realising one is in the same position is crushing, and outlines the power that lies at the core of Hopelessness. As much as our leaders may fail us, we enable them to do so, and are responsible by proxy.
Hopelessness never feels didactic, but never lets the listener off the hook either. Between her entirely unique voice, her blunt lyrics, and her collaborators’ gargantuan productions, Anohni sounds like a force of nature, ensuring all listeners consider her message. Hopelessness feels like an album for our time, melting the political into the personal, and expanding the personal to everyone in her audience. Hopelessness is magnificent.