Anohni Debuts 'Hopelessness' & Unreleased Songs at NYC Show Alongside Oneohtrix Point Never

Anohni performs in 2016

Anohni performs at Anohni Presents Hopelessness, part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Park Avenue Armory in New York City on May 18, 2016.

It's extremely rare to find a politically challenging work of art that's an enjoyable piece of entertainment at the same time. Anohni's Hopelessness -- which comes six years after the fourth Antony and the Johnsons album and one year after her Oscar nomination -- manages that strange alchemy with stunning, almost revolutionary, success. And on Wednesday (May 18) night in Manhattan's Park Avenue Armory, Anohni (along with Oneohtrix Point Never and Christopher Elms) brought her solo debut to the live stage for the first time as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.

On paper, Hopelessness would seem to be familiar territory. After all, plenty has been said, sung and written about the War on Terror and the gradual (inevitable?) destruction of the environment by climate change. But with her first album since emerging to the public as Anohni (versus Antony Hegarty), she has created a stunning work that tackles those issues wisely and unflinchingly within the context of gorgeous, dance-able electronica. Yes, it's stuff no one wants to think -- much less talk or sing -- about, but the album transcends the dourness of humanity's failings with the purity and beauty of one human's musical vision. It helps that where Antony and the Johnsons' music was pastoral and piano-centered, the shimmery synths and skittering beats of Hopelessness (crafted in part by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke) demand your attention and stick in your head.

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Throughout the show, Anohni herself was barely visible. Her entire body was wrapped in a silvery robe -- and a black hood covered her head on top of that. You could catch glimpses of her face and jet black locks when her head titled back at certain angles, but it was her haunting, bone-chilling voice -- powerful and trembling at the same moment -- that made her presence felt. 

While close-ups of faces (one of them hers, one of them Naomi Campbell's) mouthed the words to her songs on a massive screen behind her, Anohni performed the full album and several new songs as well. Of those unreleased songs, a few of them were more transgressive than what's on Hopelessness -- which is saying something, since "Drone Bomb Me" is an erotic plea for death and "4 Degrees" sees her cheering on the death of animals due to rising temperatures. How do you top that? Well, previously unheard composition "Jesus Will Kill You" raises eyebrows with the title alone, and "Indian Girls" includes heart-stopping imagery like "Cows cry/ the tigers sigh / Wild eyed as they expire / As you pump forth your smoldering empire."

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The real beauty and genius of Anohni's album and live show, however, is that all this is delivered with deep empathy. Unlike most socially-conscious rock stars who position themselves as somehow removed from the capitalism their fame and wealth is based on, Anohni (who was born in Great Britain but has lived in the United States for most of her life) acknowledges the fact that she's complicit in all this by paying taxes into the system and reaping the virtues of American life. "If I tortured your brother in Guantanamo / I'm sorry," she sings with an Orbison-worthy tear in her voice on "Crisis."

That's the most fearless aspect of HopelessnessAnohni's admission of culpability. Most protest musicians set themselves up as righteous warriors against the Bad Men in power; Anohni is wise and empathetic enough to know there's a certain naivety in acting as if you're absolved of guilt simply because you wagged a finger at the problem. She's also savvy enough to know that the lyrical content of Hopelessness is too heartbreaking to not be paired with music you can move to. When she sang of betrayal and disappointment in the searing "Obama" last night, Bjork -- who arrived at the venue in full Bjorkian regalia -- danced to the music despite the harrowing words.

Past albums from Anohni have been introspective affairs, focused on coming to terms with pain without emerging bitter and broken. Now, on Hopelessness, Anohni has emerged from inward-gazing chrysalis with a wake-up call for the world, delivered with deep emotional maturity, bottomless empathy, beautiful synths and a voice that seeps into your soul. 


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