Album Review: Thom Yorke - Anima

The way we, as a society, consume and listen to music has drastically changed over the course of the last decade. And the way I think and feel about music, as well as consume and listen to it, has also changed too—drastically, over the last 13 years, to be specific.

If I am remembering this correctly, the spring and summer of 2006 were a relatively prolific time for Thom Yorke and Radiohead. The band was road testing a large amount of new material—a bulk of which would wind up on their 2007 LP, In Rainbows. Yorke, without the band, had also readied a solo album—his first—entitled The Eraser, which was officially released in July 2006.

You’re never really sure how these things happen, but The Eraser leaked online well in advance of its official street date—a Spin article dated June 1st mentions it, but it may have even arrived prior to that. At that point in my life, a year removed from college, I was using a hand me down laptop that my old boss from my student work job had given to me—an IBM Thinkpad, it was running Windows ’98, and to connect to a wireless network, required one of those enormous wireless adaptor cards—most of the time, it didn’t work on the first try.

What I can’t remember from the fever pitch around The Eraser being available online was if it was something I had downloaded to this antiquated computer before I moved away from Dubuque, Iowa, over Memorial Day weekend, or if it was after I had gotten settled in Minnesota, and was slowly trying to unpack the apartment my wife (then only my ‘girlfriend’) had moved into.

What I can remember is my excitement and anticipation for The Eraser from the moment it was announced, to the moment that the .rar file I had downloaded completed and was opened onto the computer’s desktop. And what I can remember is that I found the album leak through a Radiohead related forum—I don’t recall if it was Green Plastic Radiohead, or At Ease Web, but what I’ll never forget is this—there’s this lyric on The Eraser: “One little leak becomes a lake.” The person who shared the link on the message board, and presumably they kissed their fingertips before placing them to the computer keyboard, called it the ‘laked version’ of the album.

That was 13 years ago. The way we listen to and consume music has changed. Physical media still means something to a select few, but there are people who don’t listen to albums from beginning to end; and there are people who don’t download music onto their personal computer, or even purchase a LP or CD—they stream everything from services like Spotify or Apple Music. Rather than pre-ordering a record, these services allow you to ‘pre-save’ the album, so that on the day of its release, it is right there waiting for you to listen to, with little effort on your part to make it happen, and even less effort put in while the music plays.

I had a hard enough time with the idea of digital music because it removes the sacramental nature of physical media—of getting the LP out of its sleeve, or lifting the CD out of its jewel case—and placing it onto, or into, the thing that will broadcast it out. It took me a long time to come around to the idea of downloading an album as my only means of listening to it—it may be cost effective, and a less wasteful and more ‘green’ solution, but for me, it is impersonal, and I still am not comfortable with always being tethered to the computer to listen.

Artists themselves now, too, choose to release music differently than they once did—partially due to the difficulty of mastering for vinyl (now the preferred format for many) and the very, very long time it takes to press vinyl releases—even marquee names will see production delays, with new albums being issued digitally first—for immediacy, then on CD an LP weeks or months later. It’s a long roll out at times, and difficult to keep that initial excitement going once people have already heard the album.

I still look forward to new music from artists I legitimately love, though I’m no longer a spry 23—staring down the barrel of 40, I find that I have fleeting moments of excitement when something like a new solo album from Thom Yorke, Anima, is announced, but that excitement recedes quickly.

I still pre-order albums—usually vinyl LPs—with the hope it will arrive in the mailbox on actual day of release (or before, if the Post Office is feeling benevolent.) Though, with no advance single issued prior to the release of the full album, I found myself not 100% confident about pre-ordering a new solo album Thom Yorke. There was a time—one not even all that long ago—that I wouldn’t have even batted an eyelash at the idea of blindly making this kind of purchase.

There was also a time I wouldn’t have thought twice about dropping the $80 for the limited edition version of Anima—though now, that’s a little harder to justify, and I went with the slightly more economical standard edition of the album.

Digitally released at the end of June, in conjunction with a short film of the same name directed by auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (or P.T. as he’s referred to as by the nerds who host the film podcasts my wife listens to), and arriving in a physical form by mid-July, Anima is the third proper solo release from Yorke, but his fifth full-length endeavor outside of Radiohead—last fall, he composed the score to the suspense film Suspiria, and in 2013, released AMOK with Atoms ForPeace, the ‘supergroup’ he formed with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, and Radiohead’s longtime producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich.

Radiohead’s last three full-length efforts—2007’s In Rainbows, 2011’s maligned King of Limbs, and 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool—did not leak in advance, simply because the band was in complete control of their release. They were all issued by the band itself—via digital downloads on a specific day, then through lavish special editions months later, and somewhere in between, retail editions of the albums from the band’s label, XL Recordings.

I had already pre-ordered Anima, like a good fan would, but the album hit the internet less than 12 hours before its midnight arrival in digital outlets like iTunes and Spotify. Like a bad fan, I downloaded the leaked version (it’s not like I’m going to buy the album twice, and a download code emailed to me upon release was not part of the deal.) I started listening to it, and maybe made it through the first two tracks before my wife arrived home from work, and I shut it off because it was time for dinner.

There was a time in my life when I would drop everything, and set aside the required 50 minutes to listen to the album, uninterrupted, from beginning to end.

But that time, for me anyway, has come and gone in a lot of cases. And my ‘starting and stopping’ is, by no means, the preferred way to listen to a record like this, or any record at all, really. And my listening of Anima in this way speaks less to the album itself, and Yorke as a solo artist, and more of my own current state of mind (e.g. depressive, anxious, anhedonic.)

Much like The Eraser before it, Anima is a lean nine tracks (a tenth song will appear on the vinyl edition only), and right out of the gate, it finds Yorke appearing as a much more confident solo performer and arranger in comparison to his solo debut, as well as its follow up from 2014—the dense Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

Anima, at least through early listens, shows incredible growth from his previous solo projects, but it also harkens back to them—it finds Yorke, at times, tapping back into the accessibility of the songwriting structures he used on The Eraser, then blended with the very heavy, very dense and complicated, and at times, even borderline self indulgent sonic atmosphere from Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

What is, perhaps, most surprising about Animas that, even as Yorke surrounds himself with skittering samples, layer upon layer of warm synthesizers, and drum machine beats—the presence of his voice, and what is most important here, the way he delivers portions of his lyrics, at times makes this an amazingly human record, when it could be, and theoretically should be, anything but.

I partially cringe at the idea of saying it, but Anima is a ‘headphone record,’ meaning that while, yes, you can (and should) listen to it over the speakers of your stereo system, it’s the kind of complex album that does lend itself well to the intimacy of listening with headphones.

The album opens with what is, probably, it’s most infectious song, or at least the straightest forward in structure. “Traffic” finds Yorke, right out of the gate, layering synthesizer upon synthesizer—favoring those warm, analog sounds that you can hear occasionally throughout Radiohead’s latter day canon—while a slithering, slinking rhythm tumbles in. Early reviews, and chatter, about the album continue to point out how ‘fully developed’ Yorke sounds on Anima, and I guess in comparison to The Eraser, which is also from 13 years ago, yes it does sound more developed. Along with the aforementioned confidence as a solo artists, operating outside of his day job, an album like Anima is much more bombastic and daring in its choice in arranging and production, in turn, making The Eraser sound like an exercise in minimalism.

In interviews prior to the album’s release, Yorke mentions that it was born out of a period of anxiety. ‘Anxiety’ isn’t something new to him, or his lyrical content—that as well as pre-millennium tension and paranoia were often synonymous with OK Computer at the time of its release. Lyrically, Anima doesn’t find him being direct, but there are very telling lines throughout the album that stick out, reminding you of that underlying anxious tension—“I can’t breathe…There’s no water,” he says, through heavy effect and manipulation on “Traffic”; then, on the dizzying “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling The Drain),” which juxtaposes a number of parts that do not seem like they belong together, the song’s opening stanza is the line, “I woke up with a feeling I just could not take,” repeated four times.

Things become more bleak and volatile as the record continues. This may be a case of reading too much into something very simple, or wanting more than what was intended, but in just 22 years, Yorke went from saying “OK Computer” to “Goddamned machinery…One day, I am going to take an axe to you,” on the aptly titled “The Axe,” which is perhaps one of the more ominous and menacing songs on the record, built around quiet, skittering percussion, and warbled keyboard blasts and howls.

The album (the digital edition, anyway) wraps up with the swirling instrumental “Runawayaway,” but prior to that, it heads into that conclusion with perhaps its most energetic piece. Constructed around a sped up sample of Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, Yorke tosses a thick bass groove over the top of “Impossible Knots,” a song that, in a strange way, is the album’s most triumphant, or at the very least, its most optimistic. Perhaps it’s the way the synths build prior to the song’s halfway point, or maybe it’s the lyrics—“I’m tied up in impossible knots—I’ll take anything you got. I’ll be ready,” but it finds Yorke moving away from the desolate, nervy atmosphere that coursed through a bulk of Anima’s first half.

In all that bleakness and anxiety, that is not to say this record isn’t without its dry sense of humor, or even noticeable quirks. “Twist,” the album’s most cacophonic and self-indulgent moment, aside from beginning with Yorke’s looped voice, rhythmically manipulated, saying “twist” over and over again, features a surprising callback to “15 Step” from In Rainbows. And as Anima’s second half begins, it opens with “I Am A Very Rude Person,” which is, in turn, the album’s most self-aware song.

For a song with such a confrontational, smirking title, it’s actually quite reserved in its execution—another track on the album based around a slinking bass groove, Yorke propels the song forward by using his own voice, hypnotically repeating the phrase, “You don’t mean a thing, but it won’t bother me,” as a rhythm of sorts, then quietly and calmly interjecting the other lyrics on top of it, like “I have to take a knife to your art,” saving the best ones for the song’s second verse—“I have to destroy to create. I have to be rude to your face. I’m breaking up your turntables—now I’m gonna watch your party die.”

Then, there is the case of the album’s centerpiece, “Dawn Chorus.”

Much has already been made of Anima’s fourth track—as it should. The title, at one time, was the working name of an unreleased song that—at least, like, two minutes of—is very easy to find on You Tube. The phrase, “Dawn Chorus” was also used in 2016, as the name of the LLC the band registered prior to releasing A Moon Shaped Pool.

However, now, in 2019, the song “Dawn Chorus,” as performed solely by Thom Yorke, has little, if anything, to do with the very rudimentary sketch that so many fans have come to hold in such high esteem.

As the principal lyricist in Radiohead, Yorke has been responsible for some absolutely devastating moments—“Let Down” comes to mind right away, as does “True Love Waits,” both the recorded version finally committed to tape (after 20 years of false starts) for A Moon Shaped Pool, and the acoustic, live recording from I Might Be Wrong. “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” too, is another terribly emotional song from the band’s back catalog.

But Yorke almost outdoes them all with “Dawn Chorus,” a visceral, cathartic, breathtaking five minutes that I was entirely caught off guard by, and already had the wind knocked out of me by the time he got to the song’s second line.

Songs like this rarely come along—the kind of thing that stops you in your tracks, and draws your focus completely; the kind of thing you listen to, from start to finish, and once it has finished, leaves you in such a state, that you need a moment to compose yourself in order to move onto something else.

 Yorke has built a career out of abstraction in his lyrics—and a bulk of the lyrical content of Anima revolves around repeated, fragmented phrases, and a lot of ambiguity. “Dawn Chorus” is totally different in the sense that, yes, it is comprised of a long stream of mostly spoken phrases, but they are the most evocative on the album, brimming with the kind of vivid imagery that you rarely find in pop music, and is usually saved for the best kind of contemporary fiction.

Back up the cul-de-sac,” the song begins. “Come on, do your worst.”

Then, “You quit your job again, and your train of thought.”

Throughout “Dawn Chorus,” the idea of starting over, or ‘doing it all again’ appears four times; each time, it is followed up with a different expression—a little fair dust, without a second thought, big deal—so what, and then, finally, with style. Theses turn of phrases swirl around the listener, resting gently upon the incredibly gorgeous arranging, including a slightly arrhythmic and off-kilter synthesizer that begins with a steady pace, then suddenly slows itself down, then begins all over again. It seems like the kind of thing that was originally written with the piano, and would translate incredibly well back to that if the opportunity presented itself.

“Dawn Chorus,” in its execution, is such a minimal, reserved piece—it’s a total surprise that Yorke sandwiches this in the center of the album, because it seems like the kind of song, much like “True Love Waits,” or “Motion Picture Soundtrack” before it, that just absolutely begs to be the closing track on a record. It’s very, very rare that a songwriter is able to make something this perfect, and this viscerally cathartic and emotionally draining—and make it look so effortless. The kind of fierce longing, urgent desperation, and melancholy that pours out of this song from the moment it begins, until its final seconds, is astounding—and it is the kind of song that stays with you, and haunts you, long after you’ve finished listening.

An album like Anima, much like Yorke’s previous solo outings, is for a specific niche within Radiohead’s fan base. It helps if you are more than just a passing fan of Radiohead’s canon—the kind of person who defends Pablo Honey and even The King of Limbs to people—then you are more than likely already a fan, to some extent, of Yorke’s solo work. It’s not for everyone—much more esoteric than his day job, the extent to which he loves electronic music is still surprising, even after that has been common knowledge for a very long time.

Some people, even die hard Radiohead listeners, claim they can do with out all of Yorke’s beeps and boops and slithering behind an array of laptops and keyboards—and yes, there have been instances in the past where things, even things from Atoms For Peace, failed to connect 100% of the time. But even when things on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes or even The Eraser don’t hit—those moments are usually few and far between, and surrounded by things that do connect in often-brilliant ways.

I stop short of wanting to say that Anima is a ‘huge step forward’ for Yorke as a solo artist because at 50 years old, with over 25 of those logged into one of the world’s most important rock acts, he doesn’t have to make any steps forward—small, or huge. He doesn’t even really have to ‘step’ at all. Thom Yorke makes solo records, outside of his work with Radiohead, because he feels he has something he needs to say—some kind of artistic statements that don’t fit in within the democracy of four other band members, plus visual artist Stanley Donwood and producer Nigel Godrich, who are the de facto sixth and seventh members of the group.

Anima is a much sharper, more robust artistic statement in comparison to its predecessors. It’s much more immediate of a listen than Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and even AMOK, and it’s also much more urgent in its songwriting and conceit than even The Eraser. I never thought Yorke was unable to stand on his own outside of the band, but I guess it’s taken a lot of other listeners and a bevy of music critics 13 years to realize that too.

Anima is out now as a digital download from XL Recordings; the standard LP and CD arrive July 19th. The deluxe edition will arrive in August.