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Thom Yorke's Dreamlike 'ANIMA' Is His Best Solo Album Yet

The Radiohead frontman's confident third album is the project fans have been waiting for.

by Josh Terry
28 June 2019, 8:28am

Screengrab courtesy of Netflix

If there’s one through line in Thom Yorke’s sprawling career, it’s that the 50-year-old songwriter and Radiohead frontman has desperately tried to make sense of his place in the world. From the moment Yorke sang, “What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” on his band’s ubiquitous 1993 breakout hit “Creep,” loneliness and alienation have been major themes in his unpredictable and ever-evolving catalog. Whether he's exploring the dehumanizing effects of technology, the fallout of the Western empire, or the impending climate doomsday, Yorke has constantly dissected those fears, often turning them inward to reflect his own inner turmoil. This harrowing introspection has taken his songs to extremes that evoke losing a grip on reality; in the 2000’s Kid A highlight “How To Disappear Completely," he sings, “I'm not here / This isn't happening.”

He’s relentlessly mapped out those topics not just with Radiohead, but also as a solo artist. Until now, though, the albums under his own name—like 2006’s The Eraser and 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes—have sometimes felt too isolated and drifted into the esoteric, as Yorke follows his decades-long obsession with electronic music and jagged loops. However, Yorke’s latest ANIMA is both his most immediate and most rewarding solo LP yet, even as it covers the similarly dark territory of his previous efforts. There’s familiar technological malaise and other dystopian touchstones of his oeuvre throughout, especially when he literally sings lines like “Goddamned machinery, why don’t you speak to me? / One day I am gonna take an axe to you” on the blaring “The Axe.” But there’s a stronger clarity to Yorke’s writing, and the arrangements, which find him reuniting with producer and longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, are beautifully kinetic and wholly cohesive.

ANIMA comes at a particularly productive time for Yorke. Following the 2016 release of Radiohead’s excellent and emotional 2016 LP A Moon Shaped Pool, he’s remained busy and in motion. On top of touring both with his band and solo, in 2017, Radiohead reissued their masterpiece OK Computer; Yorke also wrote the score and soundtrack for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria. Talking to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio, he explained this time period thusly: “I did three shows at the Hollywood Bowl [in 2018] on no sleep. I had this two-week period in the tour, where for some fucking reason, I just couldn’t sleep. Can’t remember anything about any of it. If you don’t dream enough, you don’t process enough." He later added, “And in a dream state, the dream state, you develop your ideas—scientists have had their best ideas, musicians have had their best ideas.”

Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Yorke’s tenuous relationship with rest haunts ANIMA, a Carl Jung-inspired album that combats the fugue state of modern existence. On the standout “Last I Heard (He Was Circling The Drain),” he disorienting croons and repeats, “I woke up with a feeling that I just could not take.” The uneasy synth stabs and Yorke’s haunting looped voice capture the anxiety of being “swallowed up by the city” and seeing visions of “humans the size of rats.” The rat thing, it turns out, came from Yorke’s literal dreams. He told Crack, “There was one night where I’d go to sleep, two hours later I’m absolutely wide awake and I just had these images… humans and rats changed places. A dream.” He continues, “And as I came out, I woke up with this really strong set of images of girls in tottering heels, but they’re actually rats and the human beings are in the drains.”

While, on paper, this sounds like a cloistered and severe listen, Yorke and Godrich’s partnership makes it thrilling instead. Songs like “Twist,” a danceable, wide-open, seven-minute epic that boasts swirling strings and glitched out percussion, stand out in Yorke’s discography. The songs on ANIMA all came about from reimagining old material. Inspired by touring with artists like Flying Lotus, Yorke would send Godrich “completely unfinished, sprawling tracks” that were later repurposed into loops, beats, and samples. Though the nine songs on the LP unfold in surprising ways, like the hypnotic bass blasts on opener “Traffic,” the tracklist uniformly feels assured and self-contained.

Just as Godrich and Yorke dissected their own material in exciting ways to make ANIMA, the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed visual companion piece also cuts up and repackages the album. Billed as a 15-minute “one reeler,” which the trailer describes as a “a motion picture, especially a cartoon or comedy, of 10-12 minutes duration and contained on one reel of film; popular especially in the era of silent films,” the Netflix-released short freshly organizes the source material into a mind-bending narrative. Anderson has been associated with Radiohead ever since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, when he began regularly working with guitarist Jonny Greenwood on soundtracks. In 2016, he directed video for the band’s single “Daydreaming.”

However, this new collaboration, while short, is their most ambitious and stunning yet. In it, Yorke reunites with Suspiria choreographer Damien Jalet for an intense, bizarrely funny, and affecting clip. It opens on a subway car with Yorke and hordes of commuters reveling in their day-to-day anxieties, their bodies uneasily moving in sync as LP highlight “Not The News” plays. Yorke notices a fellow rider (played by his real-life partner, Italian actress Dajana Roncione) leave her lunchbox on the departing train. The resulting action is a Chaplin-meets-Jodorosky comedy of errors as he attempts to return it to her. As a performer, Yorke has used his body to twitch and contort to his music (just take the iconic video for “Lotus Flower”), but here, his physicality matches up with the songs seamlessly.

The final third of the short is soundtracked by “Dawn Chorus,” not only the most heart-wrenching song on ANIMA, but perhaps of Yorke’s entire solo career. In the video, he finds Roncione, and their choreography is loving and tender as they twirl in each other’s embrace over an overwhelming swell of synths. It’s initially jarring to see someone like Yorke, who’s made a career out of singing about dystopia and paranoia this vulnerable and open. But as he sings “shook up the soot / from the chimney pot / into spiral patterns / of you my love,” it’s a defiant surrender to love over the fearful fog of screens and exhaustion.

The darkness defining Yorke’s muses will always be there, but now at 50, he seems to still be resolute in finding what makes him human, after all.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.