There she goes, my ugly world

Anohni (f.k.a. Antony Hegarty) and Hayden Thorpe are owners of unforgettable voices. In the past, their respective œuvres were musically distinctive too. As Antony and the Johnsons, there were four albums of East Village baroque pop, ripe with violin, cello and hollow-bodied electric guitar. Thorpe, with his band Wild Beasts, released an imperial brace of manicured art rock, heavy on carnality, sensuality, and bongos.

Then, in 2011, Anohni went off-piste, asking Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, an experimental electronic musician known at that time for otherworldly drone-based compositions, to remix the title-track of his fourth album, Swanlights. The original version was beguiling enough, with backmasked vocals and a scraping, dissonant arrangement. The remix was more abstract still, interjected with pulsating blasts of noise and otherwise meandering along synthesized interpretations of nature. In one sense, Lopatin was returning the favour, Anohni having previously turned in a spare, gently bitcrushed cover of the drone artist’s “Returnal”. (Out of this mutual back-scratching exercise I would argue Lopatin got the better deal.) In another sense, Anohni was taking a sideways step from his 2008 collaborations with Andy Butler on Hercules & Love Affair, on which he had acted as the beautiful, troubled chronicler of 40 years of gay disco history.

For those who quietly archived these curios, now is the moment to dust them off. Abandoning the pretence of a backing band, Anohni has created HOPELESSNESS, the culmination of her idée fixe, that mankind is bringing about the destruction of the environment. HOPELESSNESS is music made predominantly with synthetic instruments trying their best to sound organic. It is skeuomorphic, if you will, and it reunites Anohni with  Lopatin whilst drawing in another electronic musician, Hudson Mohawke (born Ross Birchard), who has a very different heritage again.

The album is part ecofeminist pamphlet, part self-aware flagellation, and part surprisingly accessible compendium of anthemic dance music. A track like “Crisis” is not a million miles away from Calvin Harris’s “Ready For Your Love”—until you pay attention to the lyrics, and gunshot chatter that concludes it. At several moments, the yearning cries of the club-goer or the lover are transported into a very different, more alarming context. Think back to the agony and ecstasy of Hercules & Love Affair’s “Blind” and you’ll have an inkling of what to expect.

These songs may be miles away from the lush orchestration of Antony and the Johnsons songs of old, but the production still plays its part in elevating these songs where they could have turned out milquetoast. There are beautiful approximations of plucked instruments by Lopatin, and there are synth-brass parps characteristic of Birchard’s work. Oceanic waves of synthesizer traverse “Watch Me” like the great expanses of water Anohni wishes to protect. On “Execution” (“It’s an American dream”, Anohni sings with a smirk and a sigh), the programmed rhythm skips along with perfect poise. This is arguably the pinnacle of both its producers’ careers—and let’s not forget, in Birchard’s case this includes extensive credits on two Kanye West albums.

While still fronting the Johnsons, Anohni asked, “When will I turn / And cut the world?”—an observation on mankind’s dangerous practice of cutting women, perhaps. That song contained some haunting imagery, which is mirrored on HOPELESSNESS in the brutal depictions of drone-bombing, environmental carnage, and surveillance culture. But the album also contains a healthy dose of tenderness, albeit viewed through the prism of a ruptured world. It’s a long way from the cross-dressers and basement scenes of I Am A Bird Now, but the magic and passion of Anohni’s voice is intact.

Wild Beasts’ damascene conversion was less adumbrated, but their previous album, 2014’s Present Tense, was an obvious point of inflection past which any subsequent artistic endeavours would surely exhibit a change of aesthetic. In terms of lyrics and thematic content, however, there was no warning at all. Previous albums were sexually charged, sometimes ribald, but always shot through with a sense of the absurd—perhaps not surprising, given the artistic movement the band are named for.

And so, even after a few months of careful reflection, Boy King comes across as quite a slap in the face, being a work of apparent hypermasculinity. Boy King is music made predominantly with organic instruments trying their best to sound synthetic. It is self-ostracising, the narrators feeling guilty about their coarseness, but coming to this conclusion requires patience, when you are faced with an onslaught of tropes about femmes fatales and omnipotent men.

In the opening track, “Big Cat”, the fleeting guitar lick at the end sounds injured and spent, but on the remainder of the album chords arrive like thick cords on your back. The music is on a par with St. Vincent on Strange Mercy or St. Vincent (see the caterwauling lead guitar at the conclusion of “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis”). The two bands now share a producer, John Congleton, and even though his modus operandi is not to imprint his own aesthetic on other artists’ work, here on Boy King they have—even if unintentionally—aped Annie Clark’s signature sound.

It’s worth quoting, verbatim, an excerpt of an interview with Wild Beasts’ second vocalist Tom Fleming, from the time of Present Tense‘s release:

Machismo is not interesting. For example Antony [Hegarty] is so sexual, and even Swans are sensual, because of the sonics of it. They’re angry and aggressive but they’re not macho at all. It’s all broken and self‑loathing, and there’s something very sexual about that kind of sadness, that kind of confusion. Rather than being like kind of like, “I’m the big man, I’ve got the biggest dick in town,” or like, “Hey, baby.” You know, that’s not what people do.  That’s not what makes people tick anyway.

“Thank goodness you guys don’t write like that,” the interviewer reflects, before Fleming replies, “There’s still time.”

This exchange is rather telling, in light of Boy King‘s temperament. Is this pure artifice, the posturing of the fuckboy, or are we supposed to dig a little deeper and in so doing uncover the “self-loathing” and “sadness” to which Fleming refers? The prevailing tone of ambiguity is best exemplified on “Alpha Female”: “I will not hold you back…I’ll be right behind you”, Thorpe assures the titular protagonist, and it is unclear whether this is a message about supporting an empowered woman, or of sexual exploitation.

Speaking of Fleming, there’s not nearly enough of his sonorous baritone, but when it emerges, as on the album’s centrepiece, “Celestial Creatures”, it provides a rich counterpoint to Thorpe’s falsetto, which is actually rather neutered nowadays. The Ben Wheatley film High-Rise is something of a reference-point on the song, with its heavenward allusions and tales of rococo yet forgivable indulgence. “Take me there / Towards the Shard / Where the heavens are / Where the angels sip champagne,” begs Thorpe, atop an arrangement that is equal parts Clint Mansell on aforementioned film’s score, equal parts the title-sequence to Netflix’s Stranger Things (another, more visual, likeness is the album’s cover art). “Down here on earth all is forgiven / These are blessed times that we’re living in,” Thorpe whispers in the song’s echoey, post-lapsarian final minute.

I could quote the unreconstructed tendencies on Boy King till my fingers were sore. (Worst, synecdochal offender: “You could have me anytime / Just flutter those come-to-bed eyes” on “He The Colossus.) But it’s better to reflect on the album’s duality. The airy and fleet-footed sound on Fleming’s lead, “2BU”, which breathes in spite of the murderous psychopathic tendencies being described (“When I come calling / Best hope that I don’t find you first”). The conspiratorial yet also transactional tale Fleming relays in “Ponytail”—that sultry “get in and get out”, so evocative of a bank robbery, which could equally refer to a perfunctory quickie. And the startling admission on “He The Colossus”, that “Everything just dies in these arms”, which is followed by a murderous arrangement of slinky percussion and gut-churning digital noise. There’s so much more than meets the eye on Boy King, which evinces the second interpretation one could draw from that old interview with Fleming—that they’re still channelling sensuality, not machismo, even if it’s buried deeper.

Dreamliner is such a beautiful name for an aeroplane, with its unfulfilled allure of the slate wiped clean, the chance to “begin again”. People associate Wild Beasts with the roiling, tumbling rhythms of Chris Talbot, but what remains in the embers of Boy King is their beatless majesty, and the realisation that one’s lover “can’t come with me dreamliner”. As with HOPELESSNESS, so it is with Boy King: everything is different, roles are reversed, and yet so much is the same.

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