- The Radiohead frontman at his evocative, melancholy best.
- Helping lead Radiohead, one of the biggest rock bands in the world, towards synths and drum machines. Releasing solo albums rooted in electronic music. Commissioning remixes of said solo work from Burial, Surgeon, Four Tet and other visionary electronic acts, and doing the same with the music of Radiohead. Collaborating with Flying Lotus, Björk, Mark Pritchard and Modeselektor. Starting another band, Atoms For Peace, with electronic music at its core. And DJing on Boiler Room. After all of this, in 2019, where has Thom Yorke's electronic music arrived at?
ANIMA, his third solo album produced alongside Nigel Godrich, shows that the basic outline hasn't changed too much. Yorke still likes glitchy processing and icy atmospheres. Instrumentation is used sparingly. Tracks are often sparse. His vocal approach tends towards abstraction over storytelling. But, of course, this all exists within the sonic realm of Yorke, one of the most immediately distinctive artists of all time. He's openly talked about how Flying Lotus influenced him and Godrich on this record, and Yorke's solo albums have all bore traces of electronic music artists he admires. But now, more than ever, him and Godrich are owning this space. It would be unfair to say Yorke was ever an outsider in electronic music, but on ANIMA the electronic sources feel like tools of expression rather than objects of curiosity, as they have sometimes seemed in the past.
This isn't exactly club music, but Yorke and Godrich write incisive beats and basslines, which they match with ever-interesting sound design. The likes of "Traffic," "Twist" and "Not The News" don't get too bogged down in processing, preferring to mess with their broken beats by matching them with ear-catching pops, zaps and clicks. ANIMA brightens across its final two tracks, "Impossible Knots" and "Runwayaway," which also feature impressively realised rhythms. (A little guitar, strings and acoustic drums make them the most Radiohead-like tracks on the album.) Conversely, a dull beat and rhythm shape "The Axe," a moment at which Yorke slips into the dourness that has always threatened to engulf his and Radiohead's music but mostly hasn't.
Even if we're used to Yorke's brand of aching melancholy, sadness and paranoia by now, there might never have been a more suitable time for it. His Twitter presence and moves in activism suggest that climate change and our fears of the future loom large for him. In David Wallace-Wells's recent book on the subject, The Uninhabitable Earth, he argues that global warming is such an unprecedented, mind-bending problem that it becomes almost impossible to narrativize—that most human of impulses—or for culture to adequately respond. I'm not suggesting that ANIMA is a failed attempt to translate the subject into electronic music, but Yorke does turn towards more classic dystopian sonic and visual imagery, reminiscent of Orwell or Ballard, to manifest his anxiety.
On the album's excellent accompanying film, which was directed by the famed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, an ongoing collaborator, Yorke and a group of fellow worker drones in drab outfits respond to his music with jerky choreographed movements. They travel on the Tube, glide across nightmarish city scenes and tumble across a space resembling an Escher painting. Yorke's lyrics don't fall into a theme but there are bleak transmissions from each of the three featured tracks. "I'm not running / Enough of broken glass / Enough so I can eat," he sings on "Not The News." Then on "Traffic": "I can't breathe / There's no water."
The film builds towards "Dawn Chorus," one of those stripped back, deeply affecting pieces Yorke writes so well. "If you could do it all again / Yeah, without a second thought," he softly says over an inky keyboard line. The final scenes take on the depressed hue of a wet dawn, but it's at this moment he most closely connects with his female co-star, played by his partner, the Italian actress Dajana Roncione. In a style and tone that's only Yorke's, he seems to be saying, yes, we're fucked, but we still have each other.
02. Last I Heard (...He Was Circling The Drain)
04. Dawn Chorus
05. I Am A Very Rude Person
06. Not The News
07. The Axe
08. Impossible Knots