Thom Yorke: ANIMA - Album Review

The strongest case for Yorke’s solo career yet.

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This is a review for the Thom Yorke album ANIMA. For a review of the Paul Thomas Anderson short film of the same name, click here.

Thom Yorke’s musical trajectory has consistently resembled just about every other Radiohead band members’. Up until now, solo Thom has been for fans and fans only; believe me, I’ve seen the Facebook groups, but ANIMA, his third and most personal record, is a legitimate breaking point for the songwriting that’s captured Yorke’s attention. It’s sequenced like a proper album, ditches the lo-fi recording style of his previous releases, and contains some of the best music to come from anyone in the Radiohead outfit. 

ANIMA is designed for those outside Yorke’s sphere. Beyond a few synths reminiscent of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (Yorke’s 2014 solo album), the music here is lush and crafted; miles away from the lo-fi sparity of Yorke’s last album, or even Radiohead’s. ANIMA draws most heavily from the Kid A era of Radiohead, one that saw the band ditching live instruments for a minimalist, anything goes approach. Seeing as that album stands tall in the collective musical ranking, ANIMA has a lot to live up to, and does so without feeling like a direct copy. 

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Opener “Traffic” is most reminiscent of work done on 2011’s The King of Limbs, specifically “Lotus Flower.” It’s all hand claps, a booming backbeat, and Yorke’s slippery vocals; perhaps intentionally, it’s the most electronics heavy song on the record, which may give some a bad taste. Later, on “Twist” and “Dawn Chorus,” things start to open up into direct hooks and musical footholds, but both “Traffic” and “Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain)” are obtuse electronic dirges that may require a few listens to take hold. Like Radiohead, Yorke’s music is beginning to take on qualities outside of immediate reactions. For the first time in his career, Yorke has released a solo record that takes some time to grow. 

Produced and written with longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, ANIMA ditches many of the pitfalls that plagued Yorke’s previous outings. Compiled from extended loops created by Yorke and formed by Godrich, the album (surprisingly) doesn’t bear many stitch marks. Despite being almost entirely synthetic, songs ebb and flow with purpose, even the longer ones: “Twist” takes up the most time at over seven minutes, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best track here. For once, it seems like everything is connecting for Yorke: the eerie synths he debuted on 2018’s Suspiria soundtrack mix perfectly with his skittering beats, which haven’t changed much since his 2006 solo debut, The Eraser. He sounds comfortable, free to let his voice wander rather than worry if a track needs a good hook. 

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Expectedly, it’s not a perfect transition, leaving certain moments that were once considered in character feeling like remnants of the past. “Impossible Knots” relies heavily on a 12 bar beat over a dominant bass loop; It’s a glimmer of the old Yorke, the one who wrote songs on his laptop during tours as excursions from the mainland, always with an intention to return. For the most part, ANIMA sees him stepping out into a far more dangerous, but fruitful world of expression. 

“Twist”’s extended outro leads miraculously into the album’s centerpiece, “Dawn Chorus.” Touted for years as a lost Radiohead track (dating back to 2009), it’s a devastating admission of personal fear. Like “Videotape,” the song contemplates dealing with death, but unlike that song, it isn’t at peace. Yorke delivers the song as a muted spoken-word, clarifying his words for the first and only time on the record. You don’t need a lyric sheet to know what he’s trying to say, and when paired with the exceptional visual component in Paul Thomas Anderson’s short film, the song takes on a burying feeling of defeat. It’s “True Love Waits” without the silver lining; in short, one of the most crushingly sad songs of Yorke’s career. The rest of ANIMA could pale in comparison, but like “Motion Picture Soundtrack” on Kid A, “Dawn Chorus” only serves to enrich what came before it, and recontextualize everything that comes after. The album tells a story of missed connections, lost loves and regretful nihilists. In many ways, it boils down the best of Yorke and Radiohead into a lean 47 minutes, and it’s just as good as that sounds; though it may take a few listens to hear it.