ANOHNI‘s first solo record without her band displays a musical transition that sees her forego candlelit crooning chamber music for lush electronica. The attitude has also shifted: gone are the beautifully crushing tales found on 2005’s I Am A Bird Now in favour of bold, bitter and angry dissections of a deeply flawed humanity.
One might wonder what ANOHNI’s beef is in light of high-profile stories like the general acceptance towards Caitlin Jenner’s transition. Surely that goes to show things have changed; that it’s easier now for transgender folk, positively peachy in fact. But of course, on many levels, that’s absolute nonsense, as the Academy Awards’ snub will attest. Evidently, the Academy would go so far to nominate her but God forbid a transgender artist grace the stage of those hallowed awards. Quite rightly, she declined the invitation to attend, penning a marvellously barbed and eloquent letter in response to the quite obvious bigotry on display. It wasn’t the only controversy that mired the tired old institution, which failed to nominate a single non-white actor: in Hollywood pale, stale and male still rules.
Curiously, despite such personally hurtful and prejudicial experiences, ANOHNI hasn’t responded with an album of biting introspection, instead, she has made a collection of far more generosity than the world might deserve. It’s not a record of her personal woes, but for the most part, it’s about others’ troubles, not least the general dogs dinner we’re making of the world. And in that respect, it mirrors her response to the Oscar snub that touched on the larger insidious implications of the power wielded by establishments.
4 Degrees is a fine example of the musical and thematic shift this album takes. It’s a tune that enters smash hit territory with dramatic drums, showy brass and hooks. But beneath the accessible bombast lies a brutal lyrical attack. The line “It’s only 4 degrees,” takes aim at everyone that thinks paying lip service to the global warming crisis by carrying a tote bag for shopping trips is going to ‘save the world’. She’s abundantly clear in her assertion that it’s gonna take a damn sight more than that. Unless of course you’re at ease with the following assertions: “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze, I wanna see the animals die in the trees.”
This sharp shooter’s main targets, though, are those that hold power used to dubious ends. Drone Bomb Me’s synths flare, illuminating a dark tale of drone warfare; Watch Me sees ANOHNI utilise her soulful vibrato to creepy effect whilst musing on invasive surveillance sold as protection; Obama tears at the hope once felt with the coming of a new leader of the free world with a deep rumbling vocal, and the disarmingly chipper falsetto of Execution claims, “Execution, it’s an American dream”. All in all, it’s merciless stuff.
It’s a strange album that is melodically approachable, but lyrically draining. By the time you get to the eponymous title track, the unending nihilism within has done its work. The final track Marrow sucks any remaining optimism with a light twinkling touch. She delves into the heart of darkness, and much like Conrad’s vision, it is an interminable one unlikely to be solved any time soon. Hopelessness indeed.
ANOHNI has described the album as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth,” and it most certainly is. Beguiling beats and soulful vocals ride into the consciousness like a Trojan horse before unleashing the fury within. But, perhaps, what she had not accounted for is that her extraordinary voice always wins out in the end. The divine noise she conjures has an innate optimism in and of itself: a species that can create a sound that beautiful can’t be all bad, right? Hopefully not.