Best song about climate change? It wasn’t, until recently, an honour that meant much. Excluding witty reinterpretations of old favourites (no ‘Here Comes The Sun’), the barrier had been set particularly low. Most musicians can sound less pious than ‘Love Song To The Earth’ and many poets (/ 6 year olds) should aspire to richer lyrics than M. Jackson (cf. elephants, trust). That might now all change with Anohni’s album ‘Hopelessness,’ a furious beautiful wail.
‘4 degrees’ is the anthem. Listen to this first. Angry drums, warlike horns and then the shrugging refrain ‘it’s only four degrees, it’s only four degrees’. There follow apocalyptic wishlists of everything Anohni will watch with relish when global temperatures rise. Dogs, fish, lemurs – ‘I want to see them burn’. The perspective takes a moment to comprehend. Is this the persona of a nasty oil baron? Or a vindictive God? I now feel it’s somewhere between voicing a taboo (do some of us enjoy this image of destruction, or our power over the world?) and Anohni acknowledging, painfully, her own complicity, calling herself out.
Play on repeat. And then listen to the rest of the album. It explores the dark crannies of recent regimes that most artists don’t touch, or address head on. The lyrics are pugnacious, on the nose, and thus jar all the more interestingly with Anohni’s angelic tremor. No matter how many times I listen to ‘Crisis’, its frank lines come as a shock: ‘Mass graves… Killed you father… In Guanatanemo’. Yet many of the songs here also play with the tropes of pop. ‘Drone Bomb Me’ is a love song – from the point of view of an Afghani girl, her family fresh dead. The low-toned ‘Obama’ is a break-up song, for hope.
The album is, therefore, a kind of Trojan horse. Visceral songs that can sneak radio play. Indeed, many of these tracks make you went to get up and dance (a more sensible response to apocalypse than stockpiling tinned food). The soaring electronic production offsets Anohni’s unique voice far better than the orchestral scores of Anthony and the Johnson’s, which conformed to type. I’ve long preferred her riskier, earlier collaborations with Hercules and Love Affair. And I’ve long felt that electronica (not to mention disco) get too easily depoliticized, neutralized. It is strange that in 2017 ‘protest song’ still conjures up an image of jangly 60s guitar. But here Anohni is pushing her plaintive singing in a new, abrasive way. Even Hudson Mohawke’s backings send his art in a different direction, no longer handmaiden to that particularly matcho Yeezusy form of EDM.
Who else makes – or could make – this kind of music today? I wore out PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ (standout track: ‘This Glorious Land’) and welcomed her move into more political terrain. But both live and in recording, 2016’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, based on travels through Afghanistan, felt voyeuristic. I would love to see an angry new release from M.I.A – one of the few ‘big name’ artists as forward-looking as Anohni. Or maybe we simply need to wait for the follow up to ‘Hopelessness’. One track, ‘Paradise’, has been leaked, with the full version to soon follow. Her first offering in this guise was bleak, and the world has not got any better since.
I can’t wait.