ANOHNI's 'My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross' is an emotional journey - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Last week, ANOHNI released My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, her first full-length since 2016. Between her solo project and her former band, Antony and the Johnsons, the singer/songwriter has put out eight albums, the first dating back to 2004. Her new record encompasses the range of sounds explored in her past work with The Johnsons, crafting an impassioned and revealing experience.

Anohni’s musical involvement dates back to 1990 as a performer and student in New York City, attending the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University. These younger years shaped the direction that Anohni’s music would take, incorporating off-kilter performance and presentation while also never being boxed into a single sound or style. Also, as a transgender woman, she became involved with the LGBTQ+ community and activism around her in NYC, which led to her participation in a 1996 grant-winning theatrical production of The Accession of Marsha P. Johnson.

Formed in 1998, Antony and the Johnsons released their self-titled debut album in 2004. She released six albums under this name, finishing with 2015’s Cut Your World before pivoting her musical output to reflect her name ANOHNI for the 2016 album HOPELESSNESS. With one EP in 2017 and scattered singles since, this is both ANOHNI and Antony and the Johnsons’ proper comeback project. Across her social media profiles and website, she appears to be labeling her new work as ANOHNI and the Johnsons, a fusion of current and past names.

ANOHNI and the Johnsons - It Must Change (Official Video)

The rollout for My Back was a fairly quick ordeal, beginning with the May 15th release of the album’s first track “It Must Change.” The second single, “Sliver of Ice,” was released on June 13th, and the third and final single “Why Am I Alive Now?” came out one day before the album’s release on July 5th. The full album hit streaming services on the 6th, accompanied by an exclusive live streamed performance and album debut on ANOHNI’s YouTube channel. This event also featured a Q&A session with actress Hunter Schafer, who had directed the music video for the album’s third single.

My Back is heavily rock-focused, with roaring arrangements built around traditional guitar-bass-drum instrumentation. Every song on the new album is produced by Jimmy Hogarth, who worked extensively in 2000’s pop-rock with artists such as Duffy, James Blunt, and Sia. This sound and production style is an extreme pivot from the previous ANOHNI album, which was co-produced by Hudson Mohawke, Oneotrix Point Never, and ANOHNI herself. My Back has loud, raucous moments of jamming (“Scapegoat,“ “Rest”), contrasted with lush, beautiful arrangements that swell to climaxes (“Why Am I Alive Now?”). However, there is next to no sign of the electronic production elements showcased so proudly on HOPELESSNESS.

ANOHNI and the Johnsons - Why Am I Alive Now? (Official Video)

The entire album has a feeling of authentic, live unfiltered energy. The arrangements are tight and rehearsed, but sound very lightly overdubbed. A standout band performance comes on “Can’t,” where upon the start of the song, a breakout moment can be sensed for the future. Hints of saxophone and strings are sprinkled throughout the first two verses, and when the chorus drops halfway through the song the entire band is let loose. Over the full project, ANOHNI sings with a booming, sometimes operatic delivery that conveys lots of emotion in its shakiness and dynamics.

There are three shorter interlude-like tracks which all have ANOHNI singing over electric guitar passages and subtle ambience. Each one focuses on a different stage of feeling, starting off angry and hateful on “Go Ahead,” which progresses to a guilty and painful “It’s My Fault.” The latter of the two has hints of prime Francis and the Lights; see “My City’s Gone” from Farewell, Starlite!. On the album’s closer “You Be Free,” it is difficult to tell if ANOHNI is talking to herself or someone else. She reflects on the hardships and sacrifices she made, speaking with hope that “the Earth would take my life as she took the lives of my mother and my sisters.” It is a somber end to the album, but with twinges of bleak hope that a brutal end could be effectively freeing after all.

Across the album’s lyrical themes, it is difficult to determine who ANOHNI is speaking to, or about. There is usually a faint implication that the subject could be ANOHNI herself, since many of the titles and key statements are posed in first person. The song “Scapegoat” details hate towards a group of people, possibly the queer community, of which ANOHNI is a part of. She sings “It’s not personal / It’s just the way you were born / In this society / A scapegoat is all you can be,” and later makes a statement on gun violence towards people like her; “This one we need not protect / This one’s a freebie for our guns.” The perspective in this song is obviously not coming from ANOHNI’s perspective. In contrast, the following track “It’s My Fault” seems so internally sorrowful and regretful that it is hard to imagine ANOHNI singing from another’s perspective.

ANOHNI and the Johnsons - Sliver Of Ice (Official Video)

The album post-”It’s My Fault” feels like a coming-to-terms for ANOHNI. “Rest” has an uprising tone, taking frustrated and tortured energy and turning it into a progressive step forward from the wreckage she may have contributed to. On “There Wasn’t Enough,” she references the death of someone or something once again, this time being the Earth herself. “Grab the earth / Take her life, chain her life” she sings. The following track “Why Am I Alive Now?” echoes this theory, where ANOHNI questions how and why she is still there to see the Earth’s demise, knowing that her own will come along with it. The track is a stunningly beautiful and haunting experience, especially as the strings, soft percussion, Rhodes piano, and distant calls from ANOHNI ride out the second half of the song.

Overall, My Back feels like a journey through emotional pain, anger, and the following recovery. The album is robust with instrumental sentiments that help the listener interpret the indirectly worded messages ANOHNI sings about. Without reading into the lyrics, the album can still convey an emotional progression. When studied, the lyrics speak on topics such as personal doubt and death, queer violence and discrimination, as well as an environmental and political downfall on Earth.

This is all reflected by the album’s cover art, which features the gay rights activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, who passed away in 1992 amid suspicions of violence. ANOHNI, in an Instagram post revealing the album art, described how she had met Johnson the day before she passed, and what her likeness on the album meant to her.

“For me, it is an honor to represent Marsha here, who (artist and activist) Agosto Machado once described as a bodhisattva. This record cover, the most important of my career, commemorates the restoration of connections and neural pathways between generations, past and future.” – ANOHNI

My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is available now to stream and purchase through ANOHNI and the Johnsons’ website.

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