Review | Thom Yorke - ANIMA
Thom Yorke's latest solo album chooses moody soundscapes over hooks, but fans will find much to appreciate in its creative production and cohesive flow.
As lead vocalist and songwriter for art-rock titans Radiohead and supergroup Atoms for Peace, and a well-established solo artist in his own right, Thom Yorke brings a weight of expectation to each new release. His latest solo LP ANIMA, like almost all of his projects in the last decade, arrived with an unconventional promotional campaign. In June 2019, bizarre advertisements appeared in locations such as London Underground trains and Tokyo billboards, bearing the question "do you have trouble remembering your dreams?" and purporting to be the work of an enigmatic company named Anima Technologies, inventors of something called the "Dream Camera". So far, so Black Mirror. Upon calling or messaging the advertised number, or visiting the URL, members of the public were met with messages declaring that Anima had been forced by the authorities to cease and desist with their project.
A few days and a Twitter announcement from Thom Yorke later, the album was here, and the music itself took centre stage, alongside an accompanying short Netflix film of the same name directed by visionary filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. The film, like the promo campaign and the songs, seemingly deals with the concept of dreams, depicting a strange experience where Yorke leaves a tube train, dances with an enigmatic woman (played by his real-life partner Dajana Roncione), and ends up back on a train alone. The film is soundtracked by three of the songs from ANIMA: "Not the News", "Traffic", and "Dawn Chorus", and the combination of the music with the film's surreal imagery (such as Yorke being flung through a tunnel by an invisible force and drawn into interpretative dance routines) is artistic and hypnotic. The way the scenes - and songs - fade into each other seamlessly fantastically evokes the feeling of seemingly-unconnected dream moments carrying you into each other in a way that is beyond your control.
All of this would be merely an interesting curio if the album itself didn't stand on its own musical merits. Thankfully, there is plenty of substance here. Yorke's solo debut The Eraser introduced the sound of Yorke minus a band. In contrast to his work with Radiohead, which frequently sounds musically and texturally dense and eclectic, The Eraser showed him lonely and subdued, backed by sparse synths and repetitive electronic beats, a sound which at its least interesting sounds somewhat lacking (a significant chunk of 2014's short, slight follow-up Tomorrow's Modern Boxes seemed frequently disjointed and unfinished), but when playing to its strengths and using its full potential, sounds intoxicatingly introspective.
ANIMA is no exception to this, and sticks largely to Thom Yorke's solo template. There's moody, melodic electronica reminiscent of early Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, and off-kilter rhythms inspired by LA beatmaker Flying Lotus. Yorke's vocals, floating above the beats and synths, vary between coldly apathetic and achingly sad. Longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is behind the desk once again- in fact working with recordings partially taken from A Moon-Shaped Pool (Radiohead's most recent album) sessions, and chopped up into fragmented phrases.
The analogue synth tones exist, and constantly veer, between chilly roboticism and pleasant warmth. The remorseful, beatless "Dawn Chorus", a high point of the album, demonstrates this expertly: chords rising in frequency to false crescendos before falling again. The music itself follows this pattern, the sombre chord sequence circling around without ever quite resolving. The lack of completion is highly effective here, and reflects the themes of uncertainty and ambiguity. Synthesised birdsong again explores the juxtaposition between life and technology, reminiscent of Björk's Utopia (although here it is more Yorke's dystopia!). The most "human" sounds on this album are made more effective by their rarity - "I Am a Very Rude Person"'s ghostly choral backdrop adds a wonderful dimension to the track's subtle-yet-groovy bassline and retro-videogame-esque synths. Closer "Runwayaway"'s backdrop of gorgeous, echoing guitar is positioned perfectly against computerised vocals declaring "this is when you know who your real friends are".
Yorke's lyricism is once again vivid and angst-ridden on ANIMA, the abstract imagery of its phrases drawing more from Kid A than anything strictly narrative. The lines hint at themes more than comment on them - "Traffic"'s "show me the money / party with a rich zombie / suck it in through a straw" makes wealth and excess feel dirty and dehumanising, and "Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain)" details a fractured nightmare of "swimming through the gutter", "humans the size of rats", over eerie synths and a myriad of layered vocals.
In addition to dreams, Yorke heavily references technology once again on ANIMA. On "The Axe", Yorke speaks to machines with the bitterness and betrayal more suitably directed at an abusive partner: "where's that love you promised me?" "I thought we had a deal?" Aside from the relentlessly oppressive synths, buzzing like a looming cloud of bees, it sounds as if Yorke is talking to something that will never respond.
The downbeat minimalism of ANIMA occasionally outstays its welcome: the crescendo of "Twist" is tense (Yorke has previously displayed his mastery of the creepy on his soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria) and stunningly emotive, but takes four minutes of predictably repetitive moodiness to get there.
As a whole, ANIMA is an engrossing experience, capturing the fluidity and surrealism of its title (the term was coined by Carl Jung to define the part of the psyche in touch with the subconscious) and boasting expert production. Although it generally lacks The Eraser's memorable melodies, instead focusing on eerie soundscapes, it is a welcome addition to the canon.
Best songs: Dawn Chorus, The Axe, Impossible Knots
Worst song: Twist