If love is a battlefield, as some brassy singer once put it, it stands to reason once in a while you’d see the rules of engagement changed, the arsenal updated. That’s the basic notion at play on “Hopelessness,” the debut album by Anohni, best known previously as vocalist for the art-pop consort Antony and the Johnsons. Enfolded in that flexible ensemble’s tender caress of acoustic instruments and chamber-music decorousness, the inimitable soul singer produced wrenching odes to isolation, alienation, and the quest for identity.
“Hopelessness” offers similar sensations of ache and desire — if you’re not listening closely. Tune in to the words, though, and you realize quickly that this is a protest album: a velvet glove through which lethal claws extend, a hurled brick wrapped in glossy satin. The singer’s targets amount to a litany of modern-world woes: drone warfare, global warming, capital punishment.
The music is ideally suited to dissociation pointed outward and weaponized: Anohni’s voice is engulfed, at times to intentionally claustrophobic effect, in flamboyant digitalia from Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin, an electronic musician originally from Wayland) and Hudson Mohawke (Scottish producer/DJ Ross Birchard). The synthetic sounds — redolent of ’80s art rock and new wave, yet in step with present-day electronic-soul alienists — provide a shimmering chrysalis signaling the singer’s rebirth, paradoxically fashionable yet non-biodegradeable.
Unlike the haunting ambiguities that comprised the Johnsons oeuvre, Anohni doesn’t traffic in subtlety here; boldface subversiveness makes “Hopelessness” lethal. “Drone Bomb Me,” with its sunny synths, rubbery electronic drums, and handclaps, is instantly seductive — until you realize the song’s written from the perspective of someone aching for the literal oblivion that’s been visited on her home and kin (“I’m not so innocent / Let me be the one / The one that you choose from above / After all, I’m partly to blame”). Metaphorically, we’re a long way from “You Dropped a Bomb on Me”; viscerally, the same pleasure principle applies.
Similarly, “4 Degrees” sucks you in with roaring brass and tribal drums on loan from Kate Bush, then smacks you with lyrics about rising temperatures. “Watch Me” is more disconcerting: Anohni warbles sweetly to “Daddy” about being protected from evil (“I know you love me / ’Cause you’re always watching me”); it dawns only gradually that “Daddy” is the surveillance state.
Not everything on “Hopelessness” is so sly. “Obama” in particular is an oversize middle finger: a grinding dirge, a voice writhing in serpentine coils, a venomous litany with a clear target. But that’s an anomaly; the album’s triumph, all the way to the closing “Marrow,” with its sentiments of a poisoned globe making us all Americans, is how its alluring surfaces sugar-coat hard truths for brutally efficient delivery.
ESSENTIAL “4 Degrees”Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.