Thom Yorke in every manifestation of his musical creativity has learned to build mystery and extract anticipation from his fans each time a new release is in the offing. This is true whether it is his day job as the frontman for Radiohead or on his solo offerings and side project collaborations. Once again with his third solo outing “Anima” Yorke built anticipation with crafty yet mysterious ads for a company called “Anima Technologies”. The company as per the ads offered to sell a purported “Dream Camera” to help people remember their dreams. When dialled the attached phone number regaled callers with snippets of upcoming songs and text messages of lyrics. Shortly thereafter the announcement of the release of “Anima” helped inform the purpose of the strange adverts. This whole exercise would help in highlighting Yorke’s latest recording and his recent interest in dreams, the works of Carl Gustav Jung and fixations about sleep.
In creating “Anima” Yorke again teamed up with producer Nigel Godrich, his musical Boswell to Yorke’s Samuel Johnson. Godrich took Yorke’s raw sprawling tracks and ideas and boiled them down to loops and samples to assist Yorke in creating the songs. Additionally, prior Atoms for Peace collaborator Joey Waronker assisted on drums for the track “The Axe” and fellow Radiohead bandmate Phil Selway contributed the initial drums for the track “Impossible Knots”. Yorke has stated in recent interviews that “Anima” was written following a period of writers’ block. He finally broke through the block after watching Electronica sonic master Flying Lotus perform improvisational concerts. He and Godrich would develop what would become “Anima” through a mix of live performance and studio work. Over the last year and a half, a number of the tracks on “Anima” have been played during Yorke’s tour of his second solo release “Tomorrow’s Future Boxes”.
For fans of Yorke’s side projects, “Anima” will be another breathtaking instalment of Electronica based sonics as the release pick up where “Tomorrow’s Future Boxes” left off. The underpinning for the effort is the challenge to provide technological experimentation with a heart. For those already far gone on Yorke/Godrich efforts, there are identifiable elements of their Atoms for Peace venture and Godrich’s 2012 Ultraista project included. The themes continue to revolve around personal anxiety and dystopic societal fears. What is new is Yorke’s examination of dreams, an inner stream of conscious thought and the works of Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. The title “Anima” refers to Jung’s ideas about the collective conscious and the formation of personality as informed by Jung’s study of dreams and universal symbols. With that in mind, it is not surprising that the album has a dreamlike quality with a strong introspective internal dialogue that runs throughout sharing desires, regrets and fears. As per Yorke’s prior solo work, the first track “Traffic” begins with an ominous computer generated throb that builds into a percussive dreamscape. The song is a seamless bridge from “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” as it radiates with stacked sonic loops that become autohypnotic. The track begins the underlying concept of dystopian and introspective anxiety in our modern world. The lyrics present condemnation of all our preoccupations pursuing renown and riches.
“Last I heard (he was circling the drain)” feels like it could have followed “Interference” on “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” and is its twin brother. This stream of conscious effort has Yorke laying emphasis on his point with repeated lyrics that drive home the ache of modern emotional isolationism over bleating synths and clever loops. The track “Twist” begins with a brilliant intro using loops of Yorke singing the word twist as a percussive effect that creates a hypnotic base for the song. This surprisingly at times very personal track looks at how life can turn on a dime with inferences to his ex-wife’s passing and his new romantic relationship. Throughout there is a bittersweet note of regret with gripping images of fear and abandonment conveyed with lyrics that liken Yorke to “an empty car left running and a boy on a bike running away.” At the end of the track, Yorke’s internal dialogue is broken up by the gauzy sounds of the world outside.
The song “Dawn Chorus” has become a bit of a white whale for fans. At one point it seemed relegated to being a song that Radiohead used as a sound check but would never see an official release. On “Anima” the selection becomes the track the other songs orbit around. Its luminous synth chords bear Thom’s soul and deep regrets. The sombre intro reveals a heavy dose of middle age angst, a theme Yorke has revisited time and again on works like “No Surprises” off of “OK Computer” and many other manifestations. Yorke, as he enters his fifth decade, displays additional gravitas on the enervation of middle age. Here he seems to ask life “ where are we all going with this?”, while also questioning what anyone would do differently if they could have a redo of their life. The end result is a track filled with bittersweet evocative emotion, something Yorke has a PhD in creating. The track ends with a true Dawn Chorus of simulated bird song run through a computer.
The funky “I am A Very Rude Person” has an unbelievable bass line and great guitar work that takes a slight break from all the heavy electronica found in the majority of the songs. Examined are the dark and light parts of existence and the fight or flight nature of life. “Not the News” shows Yorke becoming even more masterful in his solo work as he takes it up a notch. The song contains seriously heavy beats working in harmony with a techno glitchfest to deliver a sinuous, dance-inducing selection that builds on his prior solo/Atoms for Peace efforts.
“The Axe” starts off with this almost imagined crotchety senior citizen lyric, “Goddamned machinery, why don’t you speak to me? One day I’m gonna take an axe to you.” This lyric comes off as quite humorous considering the heavy electronica/computer elements utilized by Yorke throughout his musical career. “The Axe” fleshes out Yorke’s long-held concerns about the computer age we live in and its implications for humanity. He again ponders what we have lost as we are all now addicted to computers and the subsequent coldness of our computer age. The sonics of the track is in contrast to the lyrics. The song starts off with a Techno cacophony of echoing loops, keening synths and glitchy effects as it builds paranoid with a sound that could have come directly off Radiohead’s Polyfauna game app. Just as this paradox between Yorke’s fears of the computer age and the accompaniment manifest themselves; the song brilliantly slides into a dervish of Joey Waronker’s drums proving there is still humanity among all the machines.
Speaking of drummers, Yorke’s Radiohead bandmate Phil Selway makes a cameo appearance on the track, “Impossible Knots”. The track is a funky marriage of an off the rails bass line and Selway’s inspired drum work pulled around over droning synths. Yorke in falsetto provides a narrative that suggests that when you’re exposed with no protection you have little choice in the kind of help offered. The track examines the duality of each person and their existence where light and dark both exist. The final track, “Runwayaway” was first utilized for a Rag and Bone fashion show and makes its official appearance as the closer of the release. This to me is the most Radiohead track on the recording.
The pulled around vocals and bright “Four Tet” like synths that have yet to appear on the band’s albums differentiates this selection from their work but there are commonalities. In a parallel to Radiohead’s songs, there is the importance of the repeated lyric. “Runwayaway” at its core is based on the repeated lyric “this is when you know who your real friends are” which recalls the “The Raindrops” refrain in “Sit Down” off of “Hail to the Thief”. That refrain is a great example among many of a repeated lyric been utilized on Radiohead tracks for emphasis. There is a delightful tension in the song’s repeated refrain that is counterbalanced by the lyric “That’s when you don’t” which questions the initial advice again reflecting the duality that is at the heart of the album and the ideas of Jung. “Anima” signs off with a percussive heartbeat to end the release.
Thom Yorke has mastered the ability to morph successfully from Radiohead frontman to an individualistic, experimental solo performer seemingly whenever he desires. He has, taking a term from Jung, become an archetypal 21st-century performer. He has the ability to create brilliant musical alchemy with his longtime bandmates in Radiohead and be able to traipse off on side collaborations and solo projects where he investigates the less trodden paths of his sonic yearnings. Miraculously this has transpired without animus from his day job bandmates as he plays the pied piper to Radiohead fans leading them into the outer reaches of Electronica. This is kudos to them as much as Yorke in the ability to pull this off.
“Anima” continues Yorke’s alluring draw as he attempts to deliver Electronica with social awareness. It is always interesting to hear Yorke front and centre without the ability to enmesh himself into the woodwork of Radiohead; which allows him to unbridle his Electronica proclivities. “Anima” reveals his current obsessions and musical investigations which are informed by his day job but in no way imitate or look to copy those efforts. The latest album gets better with each listen revealing more of it lyrically and sonic brilliance. Ultimately “Anima” takes the listener through their emotional paces, Jung would be so proud. Thom Yorke with “Anima” may very well have created one of the top Alternative listens of the 2019 summer.
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