Hope was the word that came to represent Obama’s presidential campaign back in 2008. For a few brief moments the world – inspired by Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster – genuinely believed that change might finally come to neoliberal America. After eight years in office, Obama has grown old and the energy that once defined him has dissipated, along with many of his promises. ANOHNI’s debut solo album Hopelessness is not kind to America and Obama. It presents the obvious truths and struggles that have defined the politics of the 21st Century: the rise of drone warfare, the defeat of environmentalism, mass-surveillance, and the hypocritical attitude of Western nations. It is always direct; nothing is ever held back or hidden under multiple layers of meaning. The result is a beautifully modern and accessible experimental protest record.
Co-produced by both Ross Birchard (Hudson Mohawke) and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), the album is often dark and brooding, complementing its serious subject matter. At other times, the tone is more upbeat – emulating pop songs to reflect the glorification of death and justice in some parts of American society. On ‘Execution’, ANOHNI sings “Execution / It’s an American dream,” with the former delivered so enthusiastically that it sounds like a celebration. This song, like many others on the album, is draped in irony. In a more hushed voice ANOHNI reminds us of the hypocrisy of America. “Like the Chinese and the Saudis / The North Koreans and the Nigerians,” America is one of the few nations that still has the death penalty.
On the back of her Academy Award nomination this year for Best Original Song ‘Manta Ray’ – a song about biodiversity and the destruction of nature – ANOHNI reflects further on the environment during the album’s lead single ‘4 Degrees’. Like much of the album, on ‘4 Degrees’ performs as an alter-ego of sorts; this character contradicts her own opinions but does so in a manner which is blatantly sarcastic, but could easily be mistaken for the establishment. In reference to the estimated increase in global temperature by the end of the century (if no actions are taken), she sings: “It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees / I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.” While this is an obvious attack on her government, it is possible she is also examining her own attitude to the environment and her lack of action. This theme of hopelessness and inability to force change throughout the world runs through the album.
The message of ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, in contrast to rest of the album, is far less obvious: “You left me in a broken world / You left me lying in the street / You left me without body heat.” It seems more like an attack on the general system of capitalism (that America exports globally) than an attack on a specific section of American oppression. ‘Drone Bomb Me’ focuses on drone warfare and the West’s acts of terror throughout the world. ANOHNI describes it as “a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan… looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb.” From this perspective she exclaims “Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains / And into the sea.” Looking at the choice of themes reflected on throughout the album, this is more than just a criticism of America – it is aimed at Obama himself.
Drone bombing is one of the many things that has increased in frequency under his administration. Another high profile issue that comes up – brought to light in 2013 by Edward Snowden – is the NSA’s mass surveillance of American citizens. ‘Watch Me’ is a conversation with an NSA agent: “I know you love me / ‘Cause you’re always watching me.” ANOHNI criticises a system that suggests it is trying to protect us from evil, terrorism and child molesters (this is her list, not mine) but is based on the assumption we are all guilty.
The most open attack on Obama is on the track named after him. It is delivered like a call to prayer, reflecting the prophet-like status Obama secured in his initial campaign for president: “When you were elected / The world cried for joy.” But now he is “Punishing the whistleblowers / Those who tell the truth” – a stark contrast to his promise of a new politics and radical change.
The final two tracks offer little hope. They paint a picture of a planet destroyed by over-consumption. Even ANOHNI admits “I’ve been taking more than I deserve.” ‘Marrow’, the album’s closer is a metaphor for America’s exploitation of the world’s resources and governments; it has unashamedly extracted and injected. There is no hope: “We are, we are all Americans now.”
Hopelessness by ANOHNI is out now on Rough Trade