Thom Yorke Articulates Contemporary Anxieties for Dark Times on ‘Anima’

Over the last week, cryptic signs have started to appear throughout London. It began with ads in trains for “Anima Technologies,” followed by a social media post about a “dream camera” that captures subconscious thoughts, along with a phone number that brought callers to a recording from the project being teased. In due time, such landmarks as the Big Ben and the Tate Modern museum featured banners promoting Anima Technologies. Now, “Anima,” the mysterious album from Thom Yorke and regular production mastermind Nigel Godrich has arrived, accompanied by a short film on Netflix directed by none other than  illustrious auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, a frequent collaborator of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Yorke used to deride music videos, titling a collection of Radiohead’s first offerings “7 Television Commercials.” Now we finally see him with a director of his calibre, fully capturing the visual potential of his works. As for the album, both its music and lyrics make overt references to earlier points throughout Yorke’s oeuvre, as if an amalgamation of all musical instincts to date. Most prevalent, however, are Yorke’s more experimental electronic tendencies. It’s the most exciting thing he’s done since Radiohead’s groundbreaking turn-of-the-century sister albums “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.” The record takes inspiration from the anxieties of contemporary life, and expresses them by imagining a surreal dystopia.

The album begins with a pulsating tone, joined by darting beams of sound that evoke the song’s title, “Traffic” — like cars speeding by, emerging as mere dots before vanishing. At once, the central setting of a dystopian metropolis emerges. There’s the feeling of struggling to keep up with a treadmill, as Yorke sings, “Submit / Submerged.” Over his trademark skittering percussion, ring faint sirens that recall city scenes, making for a distinctly UK beat in the style that dominated Yorke’s 2014 solo record ”All Tomorrow’s Boxes.” It brings to mind icons of London life — the tube, the Victorian architecture, all of which make themselves into Anderson’s film. Yorke has delivered a fair share of his recent works in a nasal drawl that heralds his indifference to all standards, but here he sounds mellifluous. The chorus is controlled chaos, with wheezing buzzing synths over prominent handclaps and wobble bass. At one point, Yorke panics, repeating, “I can’t breathe,” and the music follows on cue, sounds caving in, until he declares, “But you’re free,” and the claps come back in. What ensues is the perfect soundtrack for the lunatic dancing that we’ve come to associate with Yorke. He throws in some of the “Doo-doo-doo” mumbling that he’s so fond of, and it all comes to an abrupt halt — Thom Yorke condensed and magnified, in the best way possible. 

A staunch environmental activist, Yorke has recently explained, “You couldn’t even imagine when I grew up, even in the midst of the darkest years of Thatcher, that we’d induce the entire country into a state of blind panic.” This dread makes its way into the next song, ominously titled, “Last I Hear (… He Was Circling the Drain.)” Out of a sea of emerging voices, struggling to pronounce themselves, emerges a twisted beat spun out of backwards music, echoing “Like Spinning Plates” from “Amnesiac.” Yorke has a knack for arranging overlapping melodic snippets that bend and mesh into haunting forms. From this nebula, he repeats, “I woke up with a feeling I just could not take,” as if an aftermath of the similarly repeated line, “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon,” from Radiohead’s legendary “Everything In Its Right Place.” He sings of being “swallowed up by the city,” and of “humans the size of rats,” an image drawn from an actual dream of his, during a jet lag-induced moment of existential dread, in which humans and rats switched places.

“Twist,” which premiered back in 2012 for a Rag and Bone fashion show in an early instrumental incarnation, features Thom repeating the titular line in almost Footwork style over his characteristic clipped beats. There are one-shot samples of what sounds like kids’ laughter — possibly the same sample used in “15 Step” from 2007’s “In Rainbows.” Vague sounds of trains and turnstiles enter the mix, until the track is ultimately enveloped in sweeping pads. In some stirring imagery, Yorke sings of “A boy on a bike who is running away / An empty car in the woods with the motor left running.” Having often ranted about irresponsible politicians leaving the next generation to cope with the mess they’ve left, it’s quite clear what Yorke alludes to. Finally, in another echoing of earlier lyrics, he reflects, “And this face, it isn’t me,” recalling the line, “That there, that’s not me,” from “Kid A’s” “Optimistic.” Transfixation by the absurdity of everything, a theme prevalent in Yorke’s music, reaches a new height.   

The epicenter of the album, and the song that soundtracks the latter portion of the film is “Dawn Chorus” The opening synth riff is oblique in a characteristically Thom Yorke way, with the last note dangling in cryptic free form. The sounds magnify, extending into the distance in all directions, and Yorke trades in his usual crooning for the intimate, breathy sung-spoken pronouncements that have always peppered his vocal output. The listless, half-defeated utterances over the fractured, yet ethereal beat give a sense of disconnect from reality in the given dystopia. This is the song, to date, that best reproduces the feeling of “Everything In Its Right Place.” This track accompanies the romantic portion of the film, and like the titular “Dawn Chorus,” a recurring moment of brightness, the song expresses a happy thought amid all the bleakness. The video features charming choreography of Yorke and his partner Dajana Roncione in increasingly intimate maneuvers, and Yorke reflects, “If you could do it all again / Yeah, without a second thought.” 

Next — we all saw this coming — is “I Am a Very Rude Person,” titled as if Thom Yorke is trying to out-Thom Yorke himself. Having railed against critics, celebrities, and society in general since day one, this sounds just about right. With prominent basslines and spacious arrangements, this song is totally in the style of Yorke’s work with his side project Atoms For Peace, which teamed him and Godrich up with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The ending is a highlight, with delicious guitar lines that multiply endlessly as if flanked by mirrors. Yorke continues the theme of helplessness in one’s surroundings, singing of having “to find someway to escape,” and in a strikingly witchy climactic moment, taunts, “Now I’m gonna watch your party die.” 

Another peak in an album with no troughs is “Not the News,” the main track around which the film is centered. Flickering beeps, bass drum splatter, and DJ siren blurts taken out of context give the feel of dance music deconstructed, fit to visuals that depict mechanical, zombified citizens forcing themselves through the motions of daily routine. There’s the type of tuned percussion that has been in the catalogue since “Kid A’s” “Idioteque,” and it all devolves into a chaotic, hellish mess of backwards and forwards voices. As for the film, let’s just say it gets very delightfully weird. The song blends seamlessly into “The Axe,” and Godrich’s trademark buzzing fly synths take over and assume dizzying, psycho-circus proportions over a glitchy, skeletal backbone. Yorke reiterates himself again, with his invocation “Goddamn machinery / Why don’t you speak to me?” recalling Radiohead’s 1995 hit “Street Spirit,” in which he lamented, “This machine will not communicate.” Upon the words “pitter patter,” a handclap comes in, grounding the disorienting haze, like clockwork, in a thrillingly awkward groove, as Yorke repeats, “I thought we had a deal.” The repetition conveys a certain obstinate, limp uprightness in the face of crushing, alienating disappointment. 

The appropriately titled “Impossible Knots” is another very Atoms For Peace peace song, except with a bassline that at first sounds awkward, and a melody even more so. In moments, it ends up sounding just right, an example of Yorke’s ability to take outre maneuvers and cleverly bring them to center. As if continuing the dialogue about the “deal” from the preceding track, he now repeats, “I’ll take anything you’ve got.” Spliced, overlain vocals in the midsection yet again emanate the spirit of “Everything In Its Right Place,” as if extrapolated into the future.  Finally, “Runwayaway” begins with eastern stylings that recall “Amnesiac’s” “Hunting Bears, followed by a surprising throwback to another track from that album, “Pulk/Revolving Doors,” in its snippets of computer speech. The music is all very visual, just as in the album’s beginning, now evoking stuttering frames, and a shaky existence altogether. In the creepiest moment yet, the computer voice asserts,“This is when you know / Who your real friends are,” along with a dance tune refrain that you’d hear in a house track, except twisted and deranged. It draws to a close with a steady pulse of backward music that gives the feel of a train receding from the dystopia, until the sounds are muffled and slowed. 

Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece “OK Computer” hinted in its very title a certain unease at life in the modern world. Over two decades, “Anima” amplifies the sentiment, meticulously crafting a soundscape so chillingly vivid that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ingenious rendering comes across as a validation of an already emergent vision. Thom Yorke delivered a set of off-kilter, melancholy pop songs with his first solo album, 2006’s “The Eraser,” and a somewhat half-baked, yet invigorating dance-informed record with 2014’s “All Tomorrow’s Boxes.” Last year’s brutally intense “Suspiria” soundtrack should have been taken as a harbinger of the exhilarating madness to come. “Anima” is a chilling, visceral, visionary record that heralds the terrifying prospects ahead of us. It can be taken as a call to action or simply an articulate expression of unspoken, universal concerns. Whichever way, it’s an album out of this world. 

Anima” is available June 27 on Apple Music.