Thom Yorke: Anima review – angst, anguish, paranoia and … jokes?

The Radiohead frontman gives a glimpse of his fun side on this intriguing, infuriating solo album. But you’ll have to listen closely

In one sense, Thom Yorke’s new solo album makes for an intriguing study in contrasts with its predecessor, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014). That album was quietly slipped out one Friday afternoon accompanied by a press release that concentrated less on the music itself than its experimental delivery via pay-gated BitTorrent files and what that might mean for the industry. Five years on, Anima arrives on an old-fashioned record label, preceded by a lengthy interview in which Yorke detailed the album’s themes (“a sense of anxiety … expressed through a dystopian environment,” he offered, blindsiding anyone assuming Anima would offer more of Yorke’s carefree party anthems), and by an accompanying film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The artwork for Anima by Thom Yorke.
The album artwork Photograph: Publicity Image

It’s tempting to say that’s where the differences between Anima and its predecessor end. You could reasonably ask, without being snarky, what the point of a Thom Yorke solo album is. After all, Radiohead are a pretty expansive band. They’re evidently not under any pressure to knock out hit singles, they pack out stadiums while playing pretty anti-stadium material and, while resolutely not a one-man show, they’re clearly driven by their frontman’s artistic vision. So what’s the itch that can’t be scratched within their confines? Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes suggested Yorke’s solo albums are largely a repository for electronic material that isn’t focused enough for the day job, and this one follows suit.

The gulf between Anima and Radiohead’s most recent official release, the Moon Shaped Pool outtake Ill Wind, certainly isn’t one of mood. Both are twitchy, paranoid, filled with dark intimations about the future. Both take what you might call the Yorke worldview: that life is a waking nightmare and everything is completely and perhaps irreparably screwed. In fairness, Yorke has been carrying on like this for decades, over the course of which he has gone from a grumbling Jeremiah to a man dealing in irrefutable truths.

Instead, the differences are largely down to structure and melody. Ill Wind has a beautiful tune floating over the song’s jazzy changes. By contrast, Anima’s nine tracks were constructed by Yorke sending sprawling electronic jams to producer Nigel Godrich, who edited them down.

Fans might note that this process is not dissimilar to the one used to make Amok, the solitary album by Yorke’s side project Atoms for Peace, and, as with Amok, you can tell. There’s a preponderance of dance rhythms – post-dubstep beats and bass behind Traffic’s massed samples of Yorke discordantly harmonising, two-step garage periodically galvanising the meandering Runawayaway, whispers of drum’n’bass breakbeat on Twist. And yet there’s very little of dance music’s propulsive dynamics. The songs tend to settle on one point and stay there, layering on intriguing sounds without moving forward.

Sometimes this works. Last I Heard (He Was Circling Down the Drain) becomes an oddly tense experience as it appears to build up to a climax that never comes. Sometimes it makes tracks seem scrappy and underdone: Not the News clatters to a halt just as it appears to be getting started. The Axe’s repetition of “I thought we had a deal” is the closest Anima comes to anything as vulgar and crowdpleasing as a hook or a chorus – for the most part the melodies feel fragmentary and vaporous.

The trailer for Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Anima – video.

That said, Anima packs plenty of nice moments into its nine tracks – among them the point midway through Twist where it appears to become a different song entirely, its fidgety agitation giving way to something both calmer and more eerie, linked to the first part by only the slenderest musical threads. The music on Dawn Chorus, meanwhile, is almost as lovely as the real thing – lovely enough to make you wish it was topped with something other than a monotonal sprechgesang vocal. The bassline on I Am a Very Rude Person is a fantastic, serpentine thing. Moreover, from its title down, it offers evidence of Yorke’s sense of humour. “I’m breaking out the turntables, now I’m going to watch your party die,” he sings, neatly surmising his fabled DJing appearance on the web series Boiler Room, where he seemed to be enjoying his own selections considerably more than anyone else in the club.

There are clever sounds and intriguing samples: the muted double bass that underpins The Axe, the mass of chaotic orchestration that briefly overpowers Not the News, the dubby bassline of Impossible Knots. Among the extraneous stuff accompanying its release, the fact that Anima’s deluxe vinyl edition comes hardback-bound seems fitting. This feels like a glimpse through an artist’s sketchbook, interesting rather than essential.

This week Alexis listened to

Burial – Claustro
Breakneck UK garage recast as something simultaneously floor-filling and eerie – its female vocals and poppy hook set amid crackle, distortion and unexpectedly ominous chords.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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