Review: Anohni, Hopelessness, Edinburgh International Festival at Edinburgh Playhouse.



Hopelessness is the most recent album from legendary singer and pioneer of feminist/LGBT+ culture and arts Anohni. Prior to the album, Anohni was best known for her work as the head of the Mercury-Prize winning band Antony and the Johnsons – a group that spellbound me with their poetic, orchestral chamber-pop compositions and Anohni’s distinctively powerful vocals; with heavy themes ranging from transgender identity and sadomasochistic love affairs, to mortality and death itself. She is also known for her collaborations with Bjork, performance artist Marina Abramovic – and most recently, being the second ever transgender Oscar nominee. 

In hopelessness, however, Anohni has metamorphosed from avant-garde poetic lyricism to brutal honesty in her outlook on our current socio-political situations, against a vibrant new backdrop of electronic dance music. Produced by ambient-Vaporwave pioneer Oneohtrix Point Never, and Scottish born Hudson Mohawke (who has worked with the likes of Kanye West and Drake), the album glides between glitchy and ethereal, aggressive yet accessible. The pop-influenced sound, as Anohni puts, serves as a ‘trojan horse’ of sorts to mask her true message – an emotional response to subjects such as mass-ecocide, drone warfare, torture and the death penalty.

After an eerie, surreal introduction of ambient noise accompanied by a black and white slow-motion video of Naomi Campbell (who was featured in the Drone Bomb Me music video) dancing seductively, the Edinburgh Playhouse theatre becomes Illuminated with white light and the face of performance artist Johanna Constantine – strikingly covered in blood-like red paint, appears on a large screen. Anohni’s velvety, falsetto vocals swim into the air in the first track, ‘Hopelessness’, and Constantine’s digitised face lip-synchs the words. Anohni then arrives onstage, shrouded in a black robe, a mesh hood entirely obscuring her face. Behind her, the screen continues to shift through female faces who serve as Anohni’s avatars for each song – as they lip synch in perfect synchronicity to Anohni’s vocals. The faces range from artists to actresses – each of which create a uniquely emotional, intimate atmosphere to accompany the devastating lyrics. The performance feels more like a post-internet art installation than a concert.

Anohni’s lyricism boldly covers themes mainstream pop would never dare to reach. In ‘4 Degrees’, She exclaims ‘I wanna hear the dogs crying for water/I wanna see the fish go belly up in the sea – it’s only four degrees’. This is an anthem hailing humanity’s complacency in considering the apocalyptic future of the earth’s ecosystems if the global temperature continues to increase – a sarcastic celebration of our utter selfishness. The subtle sarcasm continues in the track ‘Watch Me’ - where Anohni seduces the audience into perceiving a woman being stalked by a surveillance-state as a kind of Lana Del Rey inspired love affair – ‘Daddy, I know you love me cos you’re always watching me’ she croons soulfully over distorted, ambient chords.

There are also some beautiful and haunting tracks not featured on the album that stand out to me in the live show – Indian Girls, a song confronting our colonial past of raping and plundering the non-western world – with deeply graphic lyrics such as ‘tigers sighing’ as girls ‘bleed in sobbing lines’ –deeply affects me, as the startling contrast of beautiful chord arrangements and nightmarish visual language wash over me.

Yet amidst these tremendous horrors Anohni exults, we also see moments of utter beauty and empathy in against the harsh tide of deeply challenging themes. In ‘Why did you separate me from the Earth’, Anohni serves as a post-internet pagan goddess, and creates a glittering ode to the earth before human interference. ‘Crisis’ – arguably the most tender and sorrowful of the set, Anohni manages to make the most confrontational lyrics deeply personal and heartfelt, as she sings to the audience softly ‘If I killed your mother with a drone bomb, how would you feel?’ before reaching a crescendo of emotion as she repeatedly cries ‘I’m sorry’ with true passion against a backdrop of sparkling synths. ‘Drone Bomb Me’, the closing act, continues these deeply challenging themes of remorse and guilt left from the horrors of the Bush/Blair war campaigns, as Anohni begs ‘Blow my head off, explode my crystal guts – after all, I’m partly to blame’. 

I leave the concert dazed with emotion. Hopelessness takes the darkest evils of our modern world and weaves them into a tapestry of visual and audio splendour, from a uniquely feminine perspective. This is challenging music, but music for our time - calling for the audience members to be self-reflecting in our position on Earth as humans. Hopelessness should be seen as one of the most important artistic projects of the 21st century – one of true, if extremely cynical, honesty of the man-made perils of our contemporary world.


Review and Artworks by Florence Richardson

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