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Thom Yorke - Anima (Album Review)

Wednesday, 03 July 2019 Written by Jacob Brookman

Photo: XL Recordings

In the ‘90s and ‘00s, Radiohead were probably the world’s best rock band. Capable of generation-defining stadium bangers alongside heavily experimental sound happenings, the Oxford natives managed to maintain a stunning degree of creative integrity at a time when their contemporaries were falling over each other to sell out. ‘Anima’ is Thom Yorke’s third solo album, and it’s easily his most accomplished to date. Arguably, it’s his best work since Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’.

One of the reasons for that is the uniqueness of its sound, which was created in conjunction with regular collaborator Nigel Godrich. Most Yorke fans will have arrived there via Radiohead, so his focus on experimental electronica, production innovation and ethereal, fugal melody patterns marks him out from the band (and anyone else for that matter). The fact that it hangs together so well is truly remarkable.

The album actually lifts off with the second track; Last I Heard (... He Was Circling the Drain). It is essentially a synth chordal exercise with frenetic, clicky drum patches and elaborate vocal layering. It drops seamlessly into Twist, altogether a more hypnotic offering that opens with a mad vocal patch. 

Interestingly, in music production when you cut off a sample halfway through, you get an untidy scratch/pop sound high in the mix. It’s often revealing of inexperienced producers, but Yorke is a master of appropriating this sound as an auxiliary hi-hat. It makes the music feel organic despite its electronic elements.

If there is a limitation it is, somewhat surprisingly, the lyric writing. Yorke is a brilliantly distinctive singer but the words to his songs do not really set off the imagination. Some of that comes down to a certain mopeyness in the way he sings, but a larger part is the unpleasant bite in the way he borrows from the vernacular. It often feels like he is taking the piss out of the words and phrases he’s employing. At best, it can be funny in a pithy way, but more often it feels like slightly resentful intellectualism. Muse’s Matt Bellamy can also be guilty of this.

But, more generally, the album is superb. At 50, Yorke is operating at a level of imagination and innovation⁠—the record has a visual counterpart directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, as a bonus⁠—that leaves many of his peers looking like they’re nailed to the floor. His music is meditative and intelligent, and though ‘Anima’ will leave many listeners cold, it actually feels more joyful than his recent work with a full band.

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