2023, as a loose bundle of moments and movements, has been an incredible blessing to me thus far. Without wanting to go into detail – for fear of exposing too much of myself and of boring my audience – everything that could’ve gone well for me in the past 6+ months, well, did. For once. And yet, I feel like even the most of my secular little benedictions pale in comparison to the fact that we are indeed looking at a new Anohni (and the Johnsons) record. Anyone who had that on their 2023 bingo card, I applaud your clairvoyance; you should consider predicting the lottery next.
My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is the elegant closing of a circle, and it comes at the perfect time, too. Having famous LGBTQIA+ activist Marsha P. Johnson, whose last name came to be the moniker for Anohni’s backing band, on the album cover not only wraps a neat little bow around the history of the band, but it also signifies that Anohni et al. understand the importance of our times, where Black bodies, trans bodies – any othered bodies, really – are under attack from extremists and their elected lawmakers alike; that we are at a point that’s beyond a need for hope and rushing towards the inevitability of action lest we lose everything. The way this message is delivered, then, is a minor shock to the system after the radical reinvention revealed on 2016’s Hopelessness.
Indeed, this album does not reach further into the revolutionist electronica, the striking song titles of that creative direction; perhaps this would’ve been too obvious. My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is the loving rediscovery of the classic Anohni and the Johnsons sound, but not without a new angle or two to explore. Like the soul music influences that are so fundamental to this album, for example. Now there’s only one question left to ponder: has this music been worth waiting seven years for?
A thousand times yes.
‘The taste of water on my tongue / It was cool and it was good / I never knew it before’
Having missed the initial album announcement and first single “It Must Change”, I discovered second single “Sliver of Ice” only after randomly googling Anohni on a hunch – and to say I was instantly hooked would be the understatement of the century. Here she was, one of the most important voices of our generation, and she had lost none of that sensitive intensity I came to love her for. That endearing, emotional vibrato still gets me the same way it did on day one. The poetic, striking lyrics have apparently been taken from a conversation Anohni had with Lou Reed not long before the latter passed away, in which Reed talked about the sensation of ice cubes (and subsequently cold water) in his mouth, which he had never been directly aware of before. Seeing the mundane in a new light can be a transformative experience.
Third single “Why Am I Alive Now?” poses a question many of us can probably relate to in these uncertain days. The search for peace and understanding has taken some major setbacks – ‘some’ feels like a gigantic understatement now that I typed it out – and things don’t seem to let up for the foreseeable future. In light of our times, it’s easy to question your own involvement in them. In its upbeat nature, though, there is no resignation that could’ve easily swallowed a song with a title like that. The strings sound absolutely delectable (which is true for the entire album, I suppose) and the drums do a wonderful job carrying everything forward with a jovial energy that almost seems to run counter to the sentiments shared in the lyrics.
Even aside from the deeply pertinent messages Anohni delivers through her lyrics, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is an equal parts harrowing and soothing experience. The soulful instrumentation, crafted by a new set of Johnsons around producer Jimmy Hogarth and guitarist Leo Abrahams, is achingly beautiful, but there are many thorns to this particular rose as well. The squealing, suffering guitars in “Go Ahead” come to mind, echoing the similarly tortured lyrics. Thanks to the familiar vocal performance, even the sweetest moments of this album carry a bitter sting; Anohni is an exceptional talent in expressing raw, painstakingly mined emotion through her singing.
“Can’t” is a driving, well-orchestrated soul-meets-show tunes number, showing a new facet and intensity to the Johnsons’ formula; the saxophone in particular is spectacularly arranged, so chapeau to guest star William Basinski (yes, *that* William Basinski) for an outstanding performance. ‘Oh, you’re so killable’ is a central line to the following “Scapegoat”, which sums up this slowly seething song pretty neatly from the get-go – until you hear the guitar solo, that is. “It’s My Fault” marries folk mannerisms to stirring strings, while “Rest” is a nigh-quiet storm ballad; “There Wasn’t Enough” and “You Be Free” beautifully riff on the slow subtlety of the record as well, rounding out the overall picture.
‘I Love You So Much More / I Love You So Much More / I Never Knew It Before’
Yes, yes, Anohni – her vocals, lyrics, her mere presence – is very much the star of the show on My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross; that much hasn’t changed for Anohni and the Johnsons. Wasting an exceptional talent like hers on the sidelines would be borderline idiotic, however, and by all accounts, it’s her band. And yet, this new iteration of her backing band makes its presence known on this album, refining the project’s sound with new touches and impulses. It just feels like a group effort more than a pure solo endeavour is what I’m trying to say. Which is fantastic, because the end result is a gorgeous, painful, and ultimately uplifting record that I would’ve waited all my life to hear. I love you so much more, I love you so much more – but I did know it before.