The sweet, beautiful sadness of Anohni's voice (she was previously known as Antony Hegarty) has always been only half the story in her best work. On her recordings with Antony and the Johnsons, the dramatic swell of Anohni's voice was wedded to graceful melodies and lyrics that told deeply emotional, humanistic tales of the struggle for and acceptance of love in a hostile world. Anohni's music so often comprises elegant but passionate stories of the personal made public that her first album after adopting her new name, 2016's Hopelessness, comes as something of a shock. The nuanced, organic musical accompaniment of Anohni's most celebrated work has been replaced with cool, often aggressive electronic soundscapes created by co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. And instead of singing tales of love and desperation, here Anohni moves from the personal to the political, taking on global warming, drone warfare, government intrusion in our lives, violence in all its forms, and her frustrations with Barack Obama's presidency in no uncertain terms. While one could dance to some of these tracks if it were absolutely necessary, the music feels harsh and apocalyptic more often than not. And though Anohni's voice remains strong and passionate, a thread of bitterness runs through most of these performances (not inappropriate, given the themes of the songs). "Crisis" and the title song are two of the few moments here where the warmth and compassion that were Anohni's trademarks are audible, even as they're contrasted with the jagged surfaces of Mohawke and Point Never's music. Hopelessness is a powerful and uncompromising work, but it's also purposefully difficult, and demands the listener accept it entirely on its own terms. This music leaves no doubt that Anohni remains a strikingly talented vocalist and songwriter, but where the warm heart of 2006's I Am a Bird Now reached out to the listener, Hopelessness instead throws up a wall as it launches an assault on an unjust world. Anohni's targets deserve all the fury she unleashes upon them, but that doesn't make this any easier to engage with, even if you agree with what Anohni has to say.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming