review: Thom Yorke’s ‘ANIMA’ is like a dream
The last solo release that Radiohead's Thom Yorke put out was his soundtrack/score for the Suspiria remake last year, and though that did have six pop-oriented songs on it, it was still very much a score and not a proper Thom Yorke solo album. Now he's back once again with ANIMA, which does have an accompanying Paul Thomas Anderson-directed 15-minute short film (out now on Netflix), but this is very much a proper Thom Yorke album, and it's his first one in five years (following 2014's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes). The film is a dialogue-less, dreamlike sequence, and Thom Yorke has said that dreams and sleep influenced the album's themes and its title. But ANIMA stands on its own as a strong album, separate from the film or from any of the context or backstory. It's just a collection of nine great Thom Yorke songs, and it's proof that -- once again -- Thom Yorke cannot be stopped. His music has been met with so much praise for so many years that it can be tempting to be the contrarian who says he's overrated, or to pick a point in his career and say that's where he started falling off. But that point really hasn't happened yet, and ANIMA is a gorgeous record that holds its own against Thom's classics. It's got plenty of trademark Thom Yorke elements that make it feel instantly familiar, but he is a guy who never stops pushing forward and this album is no exception.
If you saw Thom Yorke live last year (or watched fan-shot videos on YouTube), you might already recognize a lot of the ANIMA songs. Thom and frequent collaborator Nigel Godrich perfected the songs on tour, so when it came time to record, Thom says, "We just knocked it out. It was really fun. It was quick and easy and we knew where we were going 'cause we'd lived with it for so long." From listening to ANIMA, you can feel how well fleshed-out these songs are and how comfortable Thom and Nigel seemed to be while recording them. Thom says that he would send Nigel "completely unfinished, sprawling tracks and he would focus in on the bits and pieces that he thought would work, build them up into samples and loops, and then throw them back at me, where I would start writing vocals," but you'd never guess it from hearing the finished product. These are tight, accessible songs, as catchy and well-edited as anything Radiohead have done in recent years. Like Tomorrow's Modern Boxes and the Atoms for Peace album that came out a year prior, ANIMA sees Thom singing over dark, beat-oriented, electronic production, and he continues to sound most energized when working in this realm. It's a much colder, more machinelike album than most of the last Radiohead LP, 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool. And as great as that album was, it sort of felt like an "easy" album for Radiohead; an album full of music they'd mostly perfected already. On ANIMA, Thom Yorke continues to challenge himself.
Similar to Kid A and The King of Limbs, ANIMA opens on a hypnotic note and sucks you right in from the start. There's almost no buildup; first song "Traffic" jumps right into trancelike synths, kinetic percussion, and the floating-on-clouds vocals of Thom Yorke. The instrumentals sound like murky, slowed-down dance music, and as with a lot of Thom's recent projects, the music is modern and electronic but he still sings like he's jamming in a '60s psychedelic rock band and hitting the peak of his trip. It's the same type of balance between electronic and organic that he's been perfecting since Kid A, and he's still finding new ways to toy with that balance. On "Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain)," Thom and Nigel layer and manipulate Thom's voice until it builds to a swelling pseudo-choir. On "Not The News," they meld flickering beats with effected orchestral arrangements. On "Impossible Knots," they take a jazz beat recorded by Radiohead's Philip Selway, speed it up, add in a funk-rock bassline, and come out with something that still sounds like the same kind of psychedelic electronic pop that typifies this album.
For all its sonic experimentation, ANIMA has a personal, human, songwriter element to it too. There's "Dawn Chorus," whose title dates back to a 2008 Radiohead soundcheck (and maybe the song or elements of it do too), and that one's a singer/songwriter piano ballad at its core, but turned into something more pulsating and ethereal. "I Am A Very Rude Person" is the album's shortest song at 3:44 and also one of its catchiest; Thom's voice is right up in the forefront and he enunciates the song's conversational poetry loudly and clearly. ANIMA's most immediate song, though, is the seven-minute "The Axe." With its repeated hook of "I thought we had a deal," it's the one song on ANIMA that you'll be singing along to on second listen and it already feels like a classic.
Both Radiohead and Thom Yorke have been releasing albums in atypical ways for a while now, and it was smart to drop ANIMA into the world all at once with no pre-release single. "The Axe" seems most likely to quickly become a fan favorite, but it's even more effective when you don't hear it until track seven of ANIMA. Thom Yorke says this album was inspired by dreams, and like a dream, you don't get to pick how it's sequenced or what part you experience first. It's an immersive head trip of an album, and when you hear those more sing-along-able moments like "I Am A Very Rude Person" or "The Axe," it's like those moments in a dream when it finally feels like you have control. And like a dream, ANIMA quickly reminds you that you don't.