When I close my eyes and listen to “Hope There’s Someone” from I Am a Bird Now, a shattering lullaby of mortality and despair, I hear the resurrection of Nina Simone. But Simone’s low-pitched, deeply rounded timbre is delivered, with halting and quavering phrasing, by another remarkable voice. It belongs to Anohni, the trans-woman artist who once recorded as Antony Hegarty. Though devastation is her modus operandi, hope in the face of darkness nevertheless winds through her music. Anohni has already established herself as a singular siren on the nocturnal ballads of Antony and the Johnson’s four studio albums. She also slipped into diva-hood with ease on the excellent disco song “Blind” (among others), from Hercules & Love Affair’s 2008 self-titled debut. Her first solo outing splits the difference between balladry and beats. It’s a collection of political songs with a misleading title: Hopelessness. Sunbeams still stubbornly pierce these eleven tracks, Anohni’s gloomiest yet.
The best kind of protest music delivers a wallop but also a sense of universality. Take “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Bob Dylan’s masterpiece of the form. Its topic was the civil-rights fight—maybe? Perhaps it was the anti-war movement? Or could it have been a larger statement about humanity? All, or none, of the above could plausibly fit. Hopelessness’ booming and beautiful sonic missives hew closer to Dylan’s own “Hurricane”, a great song that exposed an individual travesty of the American criminal justice system. Anohni takes a stand against environmental decay, drone warfare, the surveillance state, and (notably) President Obama. Sadly, her lyrics rise above the particulars of time and place only here and there. And so, much of Hopelessness seems stuck in the present, destined to yellow like stacks of the New York Times. Or, like the very idea of a printed newspaper as a thing that yellows over time.
Along with the studio flair of co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni has crafted a beguiling record of shouts and sighs. If you abstract away from some of her words, which are at times distractingly plain, Anohni’s voice resembles a regal brass instrument that further elevates these sparkling and tuneful electronic compositions. There’s no need to do anything but bask in the glory of such tracks as “Drone Bomb Me” and “4 Degrees”, the album’s opening duo that nails the intersection of message and music. The former is a showcase of echoing synths, glittering flourishes, and clapping beats that tackles unmanned combat. The latter is a bitter and mighty lamentation of climate change. Likewise, the gorgeous and funereal “I Don’t Love You Anymore” lives up to its name. And “Crisis” is magnificent for no more or less than its delicate patter and sax-like outbursts.
Hopelessness goes astray when it gets too specific. On “Marrow” and “Execution”, Anohni sings of villain and victim countries like she’s reading a BuzzFeed listicle. “Obama”, the record’s gurgling misfire, is emblematic of its larger flaws. On it, Anohni outlines the disappointments of the Obama administration, particularly with regard to its continued use of high-tech spying and the persecution of Edward Snowden. Worthy grievances, to be sure. Except, the more Hopelessness wades into concretes, the more it becomes Daily Kos: The Album. Some listeners will no doubt applaud Anohni’s embrace of topicality. But as Radiohead recently showed on their fabulous new single “Burn the Witch”, political relevance can be more powerful with a hint, rather than a flashing neon sign.
Even if I miss the personal struggles of I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, Anohni and her collaborators have created a dazzling musical artifact. Hopelessness ultimately betrays its title, and its banner-waving, because the voice at its center is fundamentally the opposite of defeated. The album may falter when it gazes into the near-distance. Otherwise, it soars. B PLUS