In the years since Anohni’s crushing warning of “4 Degrees,” the global temperature has become perilously close to the point of no return. We just experienced what were likely the hottest days in recorded history. That’s to say nothing of the renewed attacks on trans people, as the few political gains made in the community are jeopardized or eroded altogether through voluminous anti-trans legislation across the U.S. and intensifying legal backlash in the UK. When the Academy of Motion Pictures failed to invite Anohni to perform her nominated song about climate change, she posted an open letter, expressing a desire to “maximize her usefulness” as an artist. But it’s hard to do that in an increasingly polarized world that’s as hostile as ever towards people like her.
So Anohni did what any of us would do: She called her label and said, “I’d like to make a blue-eyed soul record.” It’s an unexpected prompt, but one Anohni hoped would bring out something personal in her voice. She was raised in the South of England on the slick crooning of Boy George and Alison Moyet, artists who mimicked the sound of Black American soul musicians overseas. “I’m just trying to be honest about where my voice… comes from,” Anohni told The Atlantic in response to the complicated history of blue-eyed soul. “And also say ‘thank you,’ because [those voices] saved my life.” She got together with producer Jimmy Hogarth—known for his work with British soul singers like Amy Winehouse and Duffy—and riffed on a decade’s worth of ideas while Hogarth played guitar. She drew on past memories: a meeting with iconic trans activist Marsha P. Johnson shortly before her death, conversations with Lou Reed before his, and her time as a co-founder of the Blacklips performance collective, whose recordings were organized into a compilation earlier this year. My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross—her first album with her band the Johnsons in 13 years—meets this precarious moment with a gritty record that provides a safe place to grieve nothing less than the destruction of the planet. It brings a voice so often described as “otherworldly” back down to Earth.
The backward-looking sound of My Back Was a Bridge sounds nothing like a Culture Club or Yaz record, though. Instead, it takes thematic and musical inspiration from the Marvin Gaye albums that inspired that subsequent generation of soul singers. If it’s daring to make a blue-eyed soul album in 2023, it’s even more provocative to attempt a modern-day What’s Going On within the trappings of blue-eyed soul. On this record, it’s not so much an attempt to provoke as an earnest exploration of Anohni’s vocal identity. These songs sound organic, often like they were recorded live in the studio with barely any reverb, vocal processing, or production flourishes. Anohni’s voice—and its origin story—is powerful enough to carry them alone.
The latest iteration of the Johnsons consists of notable session musicians, including Brian Eno associate Leo Abrahams and drummer Chris Vatalaro. With a band this tight, fleshed out with horns from William Basinski and strings from Rob Moose (whose arrangements most directly recall David Van De Pitte’s laconic lines on What’s Going On), Anohni has room to improvise, stretching her voice in new directions. “It Must Change” and the gospel-adjacent slow burner “Can’t” capture Anonhi’s first vocal takes and actively benefit from that lack of fussiness—there are even some joyous ad-libs on the latter’s outro, in between cries of “I don’t want you to be dead!” For someone so famously meticulous—she’s attuned to the tiniest of changes in her sound mixes—the immediacy is invigorating.
The soothing and somewhat uneasy “It Must Change” steadily builds to its final blow: “No one’s getting out of here/That’s why this is so sad.” That line sums up one of the album’s major themes—taking stock of what we’re losing by continuing to exploit the environment. “Go Ahead” essentially dares those in power to fully destroy the world, capped by a lemur-sampling guitar freakout that would make Lou Reed proud. Then Anohni pays him tribute directly on the next song, “Sliver of Ice,” recounting a discussion in which Reed described the novel sensation of chewing ice. Even the simple joys are at stake.
As on previous records, Anohni eventually turns the gaze upon herself; it’s not necessarily tender, but it’s more compassionate than the way she’d ask herself, “How did I become a virus?” On “It’s My Fault,” she sings, “It’s my fault, the way I broke the Earth,” but leaves room to acknowledge both what she’s losing and her own complicity in its loss: “I ache here, I take here.” Several songs lament the feeling of being too immersed in capitalism to figure out a better path: “Now everything’s gone to the floor/And all I ever want is more.” Even though it’s no one individual’s fault, it’s hard not to internalize the propaganda suggesting otherwise. There aren’t any answers, and for an artist whose most enduring revelations are declarative statements (“I wanna see them burn,” “I’ll grow back like a starfish”), it’s a heavy adjustment.
The internal shaming makes the outward rage of “Scapegoat” all the more effective. On a rare song that explicitly, specifically attacks transphobia, Anohni woozily exaggerates her vibrato and steps into the role of her oppressors. Her narrator flips surface-level sentiments of support—“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from”—into the very reasons why someone is “so killable,” softening the blow with a few ironic refrains of “it’s not personal.” The triumphant guitar at the end just rubs it in.
How do we move forward from cynicism and devastation? Anohni has talked about the role of burnout in societal collapse, saying to the Atlantic: “All they care about doing is making sure that no one gets themselves together to have a broader conversation about the fact that malevolent figures are making decisions that [operate] like ushers of deaths into all of our communities.” There’s no space for mourning in a society hell-bent on overwork. If, as Anohni declares in the liner notes, “it’s time to feel what is really happening,” there’s not exactly time to feel it. That’s the use case for My Back Was a Bridge: It’s post-protest music, made stronger for refusing to endorse personal solutions to systemic problems.
The final two track titles, then, act as call and response: Why am I alive now? So you can be free. With this record, Anohni aims to be that bridge for others the way everyone from Boy George to Marsha P. Johnson inspired her. In maintaining the legacy of activist and musical icons, in acknowledging what has and hasn’t changed since Marvin Gaye sang about ecology 50 years ago, there’s space to mourn what’s already lost and a little room for possibility, too. The bridge does not necessarily lead to an idealistic ecofeminism utopia—for that, we may “need another world,” and we probably won’t get one. If the destination of that bridge is just a place to grieve, that’s good enough.
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