Annika Henderson’s voice hovers over her music like a maglev train: Her words seamlessly float and glide above their backdrop, despite their weight. On Change, the German-British musician’s newest album as Anika, her musings on reclaiming power and maintaining hope—even when both seem futile—carry plenty of heft. The simple language in which she renders these complex concepts lessens their load, and her singing drifts over her kraut-adjacent electronic experiments with a ghastly pulse that casts her words as varyingly poised, ironic or threatening. The way her voice and music bounce off one another is consistently energizing, even at Change’s often modest tempos.
Change is Henderson’s first solo album since her self-titled 2010 LP, a tinny BEAK> co-production on which all but two songs were covers. Her versions of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang,” on which you could practically hear the paint peeling off the studio walls, were stark reminders that these decade-old songs’ concerns will never lose relevance. Their themes tied directly into Henderson’s background as a political journalist, and she later brought her social fascinations and bone-dry sound to her kraut-psych band Exploded View. The title track of the group’s 2017 EP Summer Came Early unsubtly addresses how little we’re doing to address climate change, and the dominant theme of 2018’s Obey is how even at our most personally liberated, we’re still boxed into heeding societal standards. Unsurprisingly, in returning to her solo career, Anika still has plenty to say about both herself and the world.
On Change, Henderson delivers nine original songs, with—for the first time—no lo-fi production stifling her Nico-esque drawl and eerie synths. Like Laurie Anderson before her, she finds immense power in hypnotic arrangements that cast her as a prophet who uses the surreal to show that even everyday minutiae are products of the systems that entrap us. On the album’s title track, as the warble of her gradually unfurling voice creeps across wooing synths, she sounds fully convinced that just listening to one another can cure all kinds of social ills. As she repeats, “I think we can change,” it becomes less an opinion than a fact. She sounds just as steadfast on “Freedom,” manifesting personal liberation with chant after chant of “I’m not being silenced,” and the cascading electronics below her suggest that this mantra isn’t a wish—it’s a promise.
Not all of Henderson’s assurances are so sincere. On “Critical,” the droll manner in which she sings, “I always give my man the last word / I always give him what he deserves,” suggests that she pulls all the punches, and when she gives her man a gift of cyanide, she gains full control. That the music accelerates into a double-time feel upon the chorus’s arrival gives an adrenaline-rushing joy to this deadly cocktail. Henderson sounds just as delighted to deny an antagonist their power on “Finger Pies,” which comes with a bassline so catchy, it would’ve been a shame to see the track as anything but Change’s opener. Instead of coming off angry at the song’s self-centered subject, Henderson goes deadpan and sounds like she’s laughing in the face of his patheticness. In brushing him off, she centers herself.
Change’s power mostly emerges at unhurried paces, so the shimmying, percussive highlight “Naysayer” instantly stands out amid a sea of casual strolls. I remember being immediately pulled in the first time its thwacking drums followed the album’s leisurely opening trifecta, kind of like the shock I first felt hearing Exploded View’s ballistic new-wave spasm “Dark Stains” amid Obey’s languid shop of horrors. The ebullience of “Naysayer” crests about a minute before the track ends, when Henderson comes about as close to fully rocking out—she might as well be shouting here—as is possible for her hypnotized strand of art-pop.
The album’s only truly questionable choice is Henderson following “Naysayer” with “Sand Witches,” Change’s most narcotic track. In its sequencing on the album, it sounds like walking through an arid desert for hours on a starry night: It can be beautiful to the person doing it, but its journey sounds draining from the outside. Here, Henderson’s voice starts to sink into the surrounding music where it would normally reverberate powerfully off the instrumentation. After that, though, her words are back above her arrangements, and she’s again focused on the perils of ignoring the obvious warning signs of impending crises. In reckoning with what’s around her, she finds her own path forward.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”