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Thom Yorke’s ‘ANIMA’ Offers an Uplifting Kind of Dystopia

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's third solo album ANIMA offers relatively peppy music to accompany his unsurprisingly bleak lyrical worldview, but it all works rather wonderfully.

Thom Yorke
XL Recordings
27 June 2019

Around the time of Radiohead‘s Kid A, the band seemed to develop some kind of desire not to sound like Radiohead anymore, at a time that also coincided with an awakening of their interest in electronic music. The template they chose to deploy for this change in direction seemed to identify a rather specific point in the trajectory of the music being put out by the Warp label, and more particularly by bands like Autechre. This was not at all an unwelcome or unsuccessful change of direction, and it resulted in some of their best work, albeit that they still sounded like Radiohead after all. Some have opined that after a while the law of diminishing returns started to kick in as the new sound came to sound a little stale, since they just continued to sound like a peak-Autechre era Warp band, even though reasonable people might disagree about the quality and ingenuity of late-period works like King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, which to some ears actually contained some of their finest and indeed most underrated work.

Thom Yorke’s solo albums (The Eraser in 2006 and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes in 2014) and his side project Atoms for Peace have also been very successful and despite the rather glum dystopian tone that accompanies much of his work both with and without Radiohead, it’s hard to fault the energy and the consistency of the output of Yorke and indeed his fellow band members in their own side projects. But it might have been a little difficult to get too excited about news of Yorke’s new solo offering, Anima, if you are one of those people who believe that Yorke and his colleagues are stuck in a creative rut.

But in all fairness, this new release is surprisingly fresh and light. Yorke has said that the album is about the twinned themes of anxiety and dystopia. He appears to have channeled this dark and difficult subject matter into some very engaging musical passages. While Yorke could have called the album Animus or Anomie, in line with his somewhat bleak Weltanschauung, he chose instead to call the album Anima, a word (from Jungian psychology) that connotes not only the true essence of person’s inner being, but also the feminine component of a male personality. That speaks to Yorke’s admirable and continuing quest for self-exploration and applied abstract thinking against an equally abstract and exploratory musical backdrop.

The album’s packaging also offers a clue to its content, in the sense that the CD comes in a very plain brown cardboard sleeve with bright orange lettering announcing the title of the album and the name of the artist emerging from an explosion of what appears to be something like a black cityscape, atop which a figure appears to be falling or fetal, depending on your perspective. It’s a complex and paradoxical set of images, balancing banality and drama in almost equal measure, which is honestly a fair summary of how the album operates.

The throbbing pulse of the opening track “Traffic” is the foundation for surprisingly light instrumentation and vocals, but the lyrics leave us in no doubt that we are in Yorke’s characteristic and by now well-charted underworld: “Submit / Submerged / No body / No body / It’s not good / It’s not right / A mirror / A sponge / But you’re free.”

It’s the last line of that passage that turns the song from pure abject dystopia and negative space toward a potentially quite different perspective which is either bitterly ironic or surprisingly hopeful. Given what we know of Yorke’s previous utterances, one would have to go with the former possibility. But the lyrical turn is very smart and offers an early clue as to the slinkiness of the rest of the album and the way that it twists and turns toward and away from us. Nevertheless, the feeling of suffocation and abjection continues with “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)” as we find our protagonist “Taken out with the trash / Swimming through the gutter / Swimming through the gutter / Swallowed up, swallowed up by the city.” This not the moon-shaped pool of Radiohead’s last album, but rather a view of the moon from a place of utter degradation, an almost fetishized nostalgie de la boue, if you will.

The version of “Twist” that we get on Anima turns out to be a composite of a song Yorke wrote for a fashion runway show back in 2012 and another song, “Saturdays”, which began appearing in live set lists around 2015. The amalgamated song that appears here is both the longest song on the album and also contains what is perhaps Yorke’s sweetest and most affecting vocal performance. It also highlights that surprising effectiveness of keeping the musical and rhythmic arrangements as simple as possible, which is a trait that permeates the album as a whole. But true to its title, “Twist” is indeed quite a frenetic piece that never falters or fades throughout its seven-minute duration.

One of the other impressive parts of Anima is its sequencing. The album is very well-paced and spaced out. The relative frenzy of “Twist”, for example, is very smartly followed by the much mellower ambience of the quite beautiful “Dawn Chorus”, albeit that the lyrics suggest a slightly depressing pep talk/love song that appears to take place, naturally enough, in a cul-de-sac. Yorke never approaches self-parody, but this kind of mise-en-scene is definitely in keeping with his consistently mordant mode of being. There is nonetheless a certain kind of ghastly beauty in the song’s closing lines that shift from a pep talk to paean: “In the middle of the vortex / The wind picked up / Shook up the soot / From the chimney pot / Into spiral patterns / Of you, my love.”

The tone and mode of “Dawn Chorus” is continued equally effectively with the characteristically morose and self-effacingly titled “I Am a Very Rude Person”, in which he says things like “I have to take a knife to your art” and “Now I have to watch your party die” just in case you might think he’s getting soft in his later years. It’s quite a pretty song musically, but those lyrics are throwing some serious shade and bear out the song’s title to its fullest extent. If Yorke is exploring his anima, he is also leaving plenty of room for an accompanying animus, and in the context of a rather large dose of that aforementioned anomie, so at least one can conclude that he’s well rounded.

It is frankly rather surprising that of all the tracks on Anima selected for the remix treatment, Yorke would have chosen “Not the News”, because it seems by some distance to be the least interesting track on the album, but it is also one of the shortest. So perhaps it seemed like it had some potential to be reworked and expanded, as it has been recently by Mark Pritchard, Equiknoxx and Clark, with some success. Yorke and Radiohead’s work has always been ripe for remix and reinterpretation over the years. Think, for example, of the remarkable reimaginings of Radiohead’s work by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, along with countless remixes of entire albums like TKOL RMX in 2011 and The Eraser Rmxs from 2008). So, one might expect more of this in the future. But in its original form, “Not the News” is not an album high point, so its relative brevity is rather welcome in this context.

Yorke’s abiding preoccupation is a growing sense of alienation in a world increasingly dominated by dehumanizing social mechanization and the advancements and encroachments of technology in a way that has transformed the nature of human interaction. It’s an interesting and ironic paradox since his own music has become increasingly inorganic and his band’s business model broke the mold of conventional methods of releasing music by the surprise online release of In Rainbows back in 2007.

But Yorke’s literal rage against the machine continues unabated on “The Axe” where he rails (albeit rather dolefully), “Goddamned machinery / Why don’t you speak to me? / One day I am gonna take an axe to you.” It’s a quite lovely song that disguises its bitterness very well with fluttering keyboards, sweet vocals, and almost no sense of percussion at all, such that it feels almost elegiac rather than furious, a feeling that is belied by the clear exasperation of the lyrics. When he intones and repeats, “I thought we had a deal” you have to wonder what kind of deal one might make with an inanimate and immanent object, but such is the nature of the human condition in this particularly depressing phase of late capitalism. We have reached the stage where we are not only talking to machines; we are also trying to reason with them. Thanks, Brexit.

The penultimate track “Impossible Knots” is relatively jaunty by comparison, and its bass-heavy backdrop is almost dubby in nature, notwithstanding the odd and amusing thought experiment of Thom Yorke branching out into Jamaican musical forms. The song is lyrically rather flimsy, but the musical patterns that are woven by the lovely and insistent basslines, and the intertwined multi-tracked Yorke vocals make for a delightful diversion from the rather relentless dysphoria that has preceded it. This track, one suspects, would be very ripe for some remix treatment.

It is perhaps typically perverse that Anima would end with a meandering and clattering song like “Runwayaway”, but it’s actually surprisingly effective, since it enacts and restates the anxiety, doubt and confusion that has characterized the entirety of what has preceded it. It differs only in the sense that it is more muffled and cluttered than its predecessors, but perhaps that is also an appropriate coda to an album that seems to be seeking but failing to find clarity. This is not by any means a criticism of the album, but rather an observation about its mission. Anima seems by some distance to be Yorke’s strongest solo work, and its musical content is oddly and paradoxically invigorating, in contrast to its persistently anomic lyrics. This dynamic is a key component of what makes the album succeed.

RATING 8 / 10