ANOHNI and the Johnsons – My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross

anohni my back was a bridge for you to cross review

Soul music is the heart of everything. As much as we can say perhaps similar comments about jazz, blues, pop, folk, each acting as roots for the forms of music we would come to love across the history of the 20th century and forward, it is soul music that is the apex of all of these, combining each of those elements with aplomb. Look, if you will, for a single fan of music who will speak even one word of ill will toward Motown and you will find yourself looking for a long, long time. It takes a certain special something to be the fundament that gave us funk and hip-hop, that inspired the prog bands and psychedelic bands to take rock ‘and’n’ roll to its limit then also inspire the punks to pull it back to the holy song, to be the throbbing heartbeat beneath all the shapes of morphing music. There’s a reason why everyone from the Roots to Beyonce, from David Bowie to Boyz II Men have cut soul covers records. When it comes to popular music, it’s the center of the universe, the summit of the mountain, the moment of absolute perfection.

So when seeing ANOHNI‘s followup to her acclaimed HOPELESSNESS, a dance record underscored by blistering impossible rage, is going to be a soul record, it’s hard not to get hopeful. When you see the cover, a portrait of a smiling and joyful Marsha P. Johnson, the co-mother of the modern trans community along with Sylvia Rivera, and that title, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, it would be utterly inhuman to not see where things are going, to not get choked up before even pressing play. She cites Marvin Gaye and his inestimable What’s Going On as a key influence on this record and that feeling is felt across its expanse, fusing art rock (or, gesturing before, psychedelic/progressive soul) influence across its arrangements, billowing out like a song cycle ruminating on the trans community and its contemporary moment.

The songs are unvarnished in their portrayals; she speaks frankly of homelessness and addiction that rattle those tender figures, the early deaths and the struggles with health. She spins the common soul/R&B trick of marrying the most heartrending lyric you’ve ever heard to an uplifting and beautiful chord progression played with just the right amount of grit. But most of all, these songs resonate with a luminous, nay, numinous love. The tone of her voice, the keen penmanship of the lyrics, not to mention the music its all married to sends that true message of love, that we witness how fucked up each of us is, inside and out, but that love endures, is mightier than the revulsion of those in pain.

All of which makes the lingering ache of the record throb more brutally. It is easy, perhaps, as we face what appears like a growing movement advocating for trans genocide to resist with pain and rage, to dissolve into increasingly frantic and totally justified tantrums. Bridge is something heavenly instead, a message like saying “I love you” as you are marched to the gallows. The beautiful dignity of that choice hits me in the heart so much more profoundly than something in self-absorbed (but, again, utterly justified) pain would be. The way that she ends one song with the line “I don’t want you to be dead” only to open the very next with the line “You’re so killable” is a spear to the heart; that the former is over a triumphant soul-rock rave-up like a jazz funeral and that the latter is over a sensual jazz ballad hasn’t failed, in all my listens of this record in painfully short time, to draw the tears out of me like a river. We see a tendency championed by some that, in moments of profound pain, we should remain stoic so as not to unduly trigger others and, while there’s certainly a nobility in considering the emotional strength of others when choosing our words and actions, there is likewise an undeniable power to this level of plainness of language about what it is we’re really feeling.

The record comes down like enfolding wings. The orchestral grandeur of the chorus of “Scapegoat” scores a lyric reflecting communion, a literal feasting of the body, imbibing both the love and terror, hate and joy. It’s impossible for me to divorce the beauty of this record from the terror of the present moment facing the trans and broader queer community not just in America but seemingly everywhere in the world. The thrust of the record is not subtle nor obscured; ANOHNI, to her great credit, presents without ambiguity what she is attempting here. The subtlety instead is contained in these instrumental beds, containing among their strings and horns and guitars both clean and distorted, jazz chords and biting grit, a complex set of emotions to any of these proclamations of queer and, ultimately, human joy. She has a magical capacity in her lyric writing, not often a primary focus of mine, to have a verse be at once perfectly legible yet resonant with layered intentions. Some writers might achieve this with convoluted clauses but ANOHNI does so instead with grace notes of contradiction, of juxtaposed moods between her voice and the line, that sum and the instruments, which makes each song feel oceanic.

Soul’s great root is blues and one affect of blues music is ultimately the howl, that primal component be it carried by the guitar or the voice where a wordless emotion is given breath by sound. This is something orchestral music often struggles with, feeling almost always detached in some fatal way from that primal aspect, that great cry. But where a great deal of modern pop is built on almost mutilating the wail, turning it into a meaningless vocal trick of endless trills, and a great deal of modern rock seems to have forgotten how to be truthfully and transparently emotive, here ANOHNI lets her voice do the work for her. Everything I could say about the brilliant turns of phrase, befitting publication in some slim volume on college campuses, of the intricate and deeply gorgeous arrangements ornamenting these songs, means nothing compared to the keening wail of the brilliant and immensely soulful guitar work and her impossibly emotive voice.

All you need to understand the record is that image on the front, all the history and love and anxiety Marsha’s smiling face brings up as we ponder whether, like Martin Luther King Jr. alongside her, we lived up to her legacy enough to make her proud, read that title back to yourself while pondering every instance of maternal sacrifice it conjures up, and listen. Some records make you want to hug the performer who seems at the very edge of breaking apart completely. Others make you want to be hugged yourself, your pain witnessed and indexed with a patient eye. Bridge makes me yearn for both, as evocations of deep love often do.

Label: Secretly Canadian

Year: 2023

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