For too much of the past year, I’ve been unwittingly living in my own musical Matrix—a cultural bubble sealed by iTunes shuffles and Spotify algorithms, a supposed happy place where all sounds are governed by my insular taste. Thankfully, two new albums—Anohni’s Hopelessness and Rufus Wainwright’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets—have slapped me from my comfort zone, like the aural equivalent of the red pill.
Anohni is the transgender artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, whose band Antony and the Johnsons specialized in heavy chamber pop that once wowed me onstage but thoroughly bored me on record. As Anohni, however, she has traded piano recitals for electronic noise. She’s pissed off at Obama and climate-change. And I can’t get enough.
Co-produced with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Hopelessness is a dance album in the sense that it employs beats and synthesizers. But the songs most likely to make you move are also about drone strikes (“Drone Bomb Me”), the death penalty (“Execution”) and the NSA (“Watch Me,” the sexiest song about mass surveillance ever). It’s pushy and patchy, and I honestly still don’t know what to make of it all. But I keep listening. I can’t remember when a record last provoked, irritated and inspired me like this.
When I first saw the cover of Wainwright’s Take All My Loves—featuring its maker in full Elizabethan drag—I figured he’d finally lost it. As a longtime Wainwright devotee, I’d grown frustrated with the increasingly operatic flourish of his work, often wishing he’d kept his epic ambition in check. Who could’ve predicted that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death would inspire his leanest-sounding album in years? Well, as lean as an album incorporating classical arias, German folksong and a sonnet-delivering William Shatner can be. Like Hopelessness, Take All My Loves is a slithering creature I haven’t fully grasped yet, but any album that tempts you to read more poetry must be remarkable.
In a recent New Yorker review of Hopelessness, writer Hua Hsu questioned why he initially scoffed at the album’s grand intentions, asking, “Why doesn’t more art aspire to do something that seems impossible?” Both Anohni and Wainwright have rattled my brain open. In a time when Kesha is given a standing-o for merely singing a Dylan song, we all need to aim higher and expect more.