Wednesday, May 25, 2016

album review: 'hopelessness' by anohni

If I were to ask you what are the genres that bring up politics the most, what would be your answers?

Well, if I were to guess, you'd probably start with punk, and then follow with hip-hop. Maybe you'd bring up folk or funk or soul, or in a pinch you might mention alternative country or metal. Odds are you would not mention electronic music or synthpop, and there's a reason for that. In the latter case, it's fairly obvious: if you look at the historical legacy of synthpop, most of it tended towards weird abstraction or flighty dance floor jams, and while of course there were exceptions, they were not the rule. With electronic music... okay, you can make more of an argument when you consider certain underground scenes, particularly in inner city Detroit and Chicago where you'd find acts like Jlin, or you might mention acts like The Knife, which got very political on their 2013 album Shaking The Habitual to very mixed results, at least for me. 

So what about an artist like Anohni? If you don't recognize the name, don't worry, she's only been performing under it for this record, previously leading the band Antony and the Johnsons. Now keep in mind that Antony and the Johnsons are a baroque pop group that's received a ton of critical acclaim - mostly for good reason - but this is also her first album in six years and her first real venture into electronic music. Fortunately, she pulled in some heavy hitters to help her, the first being Hudson Mohawke, who is most well-known for working with Kanye West. The second is Oneotrix Point Never, a critically acclaimed experimental electronica musician who, yes, I know i need to hear more of his stuff, it's in my ever-expanding backlog. In other words, we could very well have another situation like Anna Meredith, the fusion of electronic and classical music... but on the other hand many of the statements Anohni made before this record implied this was to be a much more political work. Okay, that's a loaded implication, but I figured it'd probably be worth a few listens, so I checked out Hopelessness - what did I find?

Honestly, very little. I was at least hoping that Anohni could bring some of the grace and emotive power she had on previous records to bear here, but instead we have a example of the biggest political miscalculation on record since Megadeth's Dystopia, only this time from the left. And what's infuriating is that while there are definitely points that I agree with thematically, the execution is so sloppily written and performed that I cannot remotely support this, to the point I'm legitimately baffled why more critics have not called it out. And all of that might potentially be excusable if the music was good... and yeah, it's really not all that strong. Hopelessness by Anohni might not be the worst record I've heard this year, but there'll be few that make me this angry.

So before we begin, let's briefly cut back to my principles for good political art, the Three Ps: power, precision, populism. And if you watched my last review you probably remember that I didn't really bring those P's up when I talked about White Lung... mostly because Mish Way is a smart enough writer to nail all three. The writing was explicit and hard-hitting, poised and nuanced enough to cut into the meat of feminism for incisive critique, and she spoke from an empathetic position within - for the people, by the people. I say all this because of the Three Ps, Anohni barely gets even one consistently. And yes, we're starting with lyrics and themes and the disclaimer that while I'd probably be defined as a liberal in most conversations, I'm also more on the libertarian side of the spectrum instead of authoritarian and that means I've got no qualms criticizing liberal viewpoints, especially when they're presented badly. And we've got the motherload there, as Anohni apparently took the Spike Lee approach to politics and sprayed talking points everywhere with little tact and even less nuance. And the first point that has to be raised right out of the gate is that the title of the record is apt in describing the mood of the writing, mostly in that it's nihilistic. Anohni believes that we as humanity - specifically the United States, men, and Obama in particular - have doomed ourselves and we are a virus on this planet Earth, to the point where she doesn't care anymore about anyone or anything. Now let me give her some credit and say that this cynicism is not without precedent: the Dadaist movement was built on it and set itself up as anti-art, that the humanity who enacted such grievous tragedies had no inherent value. 

Want to know the big difference between that and this record, beyond the fact that I find general privileged nihilism such that is displayed here on world issues completely disconnected from reality? Dadaist pieces were often exercises in nihilistic indulgence and irrationality, the only message coming in their existence, whereas this record wants to have a point and be taken seriously. And man, there's a lot of contempt I have for how that message is delivered, mostly because it's very easy to position yourself as a self-flagellating martyr when you're not in that desperate situation yourself. And it's right from the very first song, from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan whose family has been killed by drones and now wishes death for herself. It is a profoundly self-serving suicidal position completely divorced from the reality of people trying to survive beneath drone warfare, and it really feels in bad taste. Contrast this to James McMurtry's landmark classic 'We Can't Make It Here Anymore', which explores the decline of the United States in visceral detail and there's the same hopelessness, but the mood is different, a simmering current of rage and grief, with empathy for those trying to survive. The biggest problem with framing your big political statement as a nihilist rant is that it feels self-involved - especially when you include the breakup song 'I Don't Love You Anymore' right in the middle, which makes the unfortunate implication such reckless politics might have been partially inspired by the breakup - and it doesn't show the same sort of empathy.

And if this record was remotely interested in engaging with the politics, that'd be one thing, but it's also content to paint with a very broad brush, where some political scenarios aren't so cut and dry - not helped by inconsistencies in metaphor across the record. On the anti-death penalty song 'Execution', she rails against a policy she knows is diminishing by comparing us to nations who execute more indiscriminately - and yet at the end of the album on 'Marrow' she claims all the world's nations are being Americanized - you can't have it both ways! At least the tracks about climate change like '4 Degrees' and 'Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth', while I might find the delivery pompous and insufferable it's least a clear issue, whereas drone warfare, surveillance, whistleblowers, globalization, and the president demand complexity if you want to be taken seriously. The track titled 'Obama' is particularly obnoxious - what, you're disappointed with the president? So am I, but that's because he didn't whip together his party to slam forward a legislative agenda when he had majorities in both houses, or because he fell in line with business interests that watered down bills that could have driven more societal change. Admittedly, that's a level of nuance this record can't approach lyrically - and I wouldn't really expect it to - but instead we get this melodramatic bitching that takes the broadest strokes of talking points that don't remotely try to engage intellectually with the issues. And then we get songs like 'Violent Men', where the message is a reflexive smack against the titular gender with so little lyrical progression that it feels both shallow and insulting - hate to bring some reality to this record, but sometimes the capacity for violence is necessary, and while we can all wish for greater reason to guide it, gendering it and casting it aside is flat out ignorant. And all of it is made so much worse by the delivery, because for the most part I can't stand Anohni's vocals on this record. Her throaty warble is easily at its worst on the distorted 'Obama' and 'Violent Men', but the larger issue is that for as sarcastic and bitter as the writing is, the delivery doesn't remotely feel raw or visceral to match it - emoting for a sort of majestic soulfulness that doesn't remotely work with the content. And that's not counting the melancholic stiffness that adds a layer of haughtiness, which only further diminishes any populism and feels even more disconnected from that audience.

So what saves this album? Honestly, it's the production, but I don't think either Hudson Mohawke or Oneotrix Point Never brought their a-game here, because the mood and flow is incredibly inconsistent. Where it works the best is when the tracks get some thicker swell and bombast, like on '4 Degrees' with the horn-like swell or the heavier clatter against the chime-like melodies on 'Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth', mostly because it can capture that apocalyptic spark, but the rest of this record falls into a weird grey zone full of glassy, reverb-touched synths, mechanical percussion, and choppy grooves that don't really build with a lot of colour or progression. And sure, there are some neat synth accents at the back of 'Drone Bomb Me' and 'Crisis', or the trilling melodies behind 'Execution', or even the melancholic bleakness of 'I Don't Love You Anymore' that build good atmosphere, but contrast that with the incredibly shrill glitch of 'Violent Men' or the completely tedious and fragmented 'Obama' and I feel even they are struggling to find a consistent mood for these compositions. 

And that makes sense, because for as much as Hopelessness is trying to spur some sort of action, its methods are incredibly confused. It wants to play the apocalypse prophet but the instrumentation has nowhere near the thunderous impact to match it, especially when the shallow sarcasm of the writing doesn't match Anohni's pompous delivery. What it reminds me of more is a record that wants to espouse talking points, but isn't willing to dig into the complexities or engage with anyone beyond pointless, self-obsessed nihilism, who wants to make the world's issues all about them instead of showing empathy or trying to find a solution. And if that sort of character study was the point... well, congratulations on characterizing the first person I'd leave behind when the floodwaters come, but it doesn't make the music tolerable and I get the unfortunate feeling that wasn't Anohni's intent from her interviews. As such, if this record wants to be provocative, I've got my response: a very light 4/10 - really just for some decent production - and not a chance in hell of a recommendation. So yeah, this record might have provoked a reaction in me, but I'm fairly certain it's not the one that was desired, because this sucks.

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