Hopelessness is described by its creator Anohni, formerly of Antony And The Johnsons, as “an electronic album with sharp teeth”. It is this and more; a trojan horse of electronic sounds bearing a gift of caustic, unignorable political lyrics. Live, it proves to be as immersive as it is moving, politically involved and original.
The process of immersion begins on a huge, front and centre white screen. Supermodel Naomi Campbell struts and vogues, pouts and preens for fully 20 minutes over a slowly intensifying loop of oscillating white noise. Dressed in knee-high boots, underwear and horned headwear, her expression is sometimes friendly, sometimes fierce, sympathetic and then not, yet always captivating.
Eventually the visual loop of her idealised personification of womanhood gives way to a succession of women’s faces, one at a time, each mouthing the words to Anohni’s songs. On the album, the music bereft of visuals works as a trojan horse for the lyrics. Live, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Ross Bichard (Hudson Mohawke), either side of the screen, trigger the sounds.
From the second song 4 Degrees, Anohni triumphantly appears, dressed head to foot in a hooded cowl, the outfit completed with a veil. Expression is left to her hands, occasional sashays and kneel-downs, and that voice. It underlines the fact that we’re not here to watch a performance of musicality. The faces on the screen dominate everything, and the succession of women whose faces appear on it hammer home the lyrics, mouthing words which Anohni sings beneath them.
“How would you feel if I killed your father with a drone bomb?” is the plaintive question at the centre of Crisis, one Anohni seems to ask the audience, putting their comfortably seated concert hall experience in stark relief against the lives of those whose lives are uprooted, destroyed by robotic weapons raining terror down upon them in far flung lands. The music is sparse and oddly comforting, as if to emphasise the contrast between the Barbican and the referenced war zones.
Execution’s major key and Anohni’s playful voice over a toe-tapping beat belie the song’s theme centred on the US’s death penalty and its lack of mercy juxtaposed with the idealised notion of “the American dream”. It underlines that Anohni’s experiences are necessarily centred on a life lived in the US, and while the rest of the world is referenced, much of the lyrical material here focuses on US policy. It might be pointed out that the US is not the only government involved in activities that might charitably be described as controversial, but the evening is only so long, and Anohni is but one person, seeing things from one perspective and actively choosing not to – like some latter-day Earth Song era Michael Jackson might – speak for anyone other than herself.
Obama plays out like a curse as Anohni holds the outgoing president to account, recalling the euphoria which swept him to office but noticing all that he’s not done in his nearly eight years in the Oval Office. “When you were elected the world cried for joy, We thought we had empowered the truth-telling envoy. Now the news is you are spying, executing without trial, betraying virtues, scarring closed the sky. Punishing the whistleblowers, those who tell the truth, do you recognise the yellow, staring back at you.” It’s powerful stuff, not least as one of those whistleblowers, Chelsea Manning, is like Anohni trans woman and another, Edward Snowden, is still a fugitive from US justice.
Sometimes the lyrics border on the nihilistic, as on Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth, a bold lament for what sounds not far from life, the universe and everything: “I don’t want your future.” Anohni is concerned with how all of this interconnects, and brings us to where we are. It is a central theme voiced effectively by an ancient aboriginal woman, Ngalangka Nola Taylor, who fears for the future of the planet and its inhabitants – all of us, herself included. By apathy, by active consumption, her point seems to be that we are all responsible for how things are, but equally how things will be. Anohni levels this critique of humankind at herself as much as anyone else – there’s a self-aware sense that change has to start somewhere and expecting others to make the first move is never going to be a strategy for anything.
The reflective Drone Bomb Me, with Campbell back on screen for the video, concludes the set: “Blow my head off, explode my crystal guts” is about as graphic as lyrics can be over music that could, at a push, be danced to. These are powerful ideas expressed by an artist who shows every sign of having grown into their talent, one with a mind well able to process the mass of contradictions humanity throws up and translate it back to us. Anohni in art is as a mirror, held up that we might see ourselves. It’s uncompromising, but appealing to the masses is clearly not the aim here. Indeed it’s debatable whether this show can in any way be called entertaining, yet it nonetheless feels like a vital contribution. And despite the album’s title, there’s the sense that through communication and shared experience, through understanding, there might be hope.
Anohni played: Hopelessness, 4 Degrees, Watch Me, Paradise, Execution, Richochet, I Don’t Love You Anymore, Obama, Violent Men, Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth, Jesus Will Kill You, Crisis, Indian Girls, Marrow, In My Dreams, Drone Bomb Me