Trans artist mixes deep politics and club-pop to create a hauntingly powerful statement
“It’s an American dream” coos the transgender artist formerly known as Antony, on “Execution,” a spangled pop jam about state-sanctioned murder delivered over silvery percussive stabs and synth builds. It may leave you uncertain whether to dance or collapse in tears, which is the operative dichotomy of an extraordinary record fusing disco uplift, blues pain-purging, gospel salvation-seeking, and protest song testifying. Despite the rangy gorgeousness of her voice and the state-of-the-art electronic dazzle of the music, created with Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Ross Birchard (Hudson Mohawke), Hopelessness isn’t easy listening. “Crisis” shoulders blame for a nation’s atrocities (“If I tortured you brother/In Guantanamo/I’m sorry”). The brooding, incantatory “Obama” indicts a presumed savior who betrayed the faith. “Watch Me” wryly serenades the surveillance state as if placating an abusive lover.
But what can at times sound facile in its un-coded repugnance deepens, on repeated listens, into both sophisticated political statement and haunting music. Like her late friend and occasional collaborator Lou Reed, ANOHNI observes horror in her art unflinchingly, magnifying it in the process, and transforming shock value into something more valuable. On “4 Degrees,” she explores the dark side of Hudson Mohawke’s anthemic triumphalism, in the past a great foil for Kanye West’s complicated megalomania; here, it becomes the voice of an apocalyptic death wish, the singer collapsing ecological catastrophe and dancefloor ecstasy into a signifying whorl of seductive obliteration. “Drone Bomb Me” does something similar, channeling a voice (of an Afghani girl who lost her parents to American bombs, according to an artist statement) that pleads with an overhead machine like a script-flip of Eye In The Sky. “Blow my head off … lay my purple on the grass,” she sings, beckoning near-obscenely as the music swells. It’s difficult to hear without facing one’s own privilege and culpability, equally difficult to turn away from, and impossible to forget.