Part of Radiohead‘s brilliance was their blending of heavy-hitting grunge-birthed rock with dreamy ambient textures. The trajectory of the band over their 35-year career has been to gradually pull back on the hard rock and push up the ethereal elements in the mix. 2011’s King of Limbs and 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool feature very little distorted guitar, instead opting to emphasize looping electronics in the former and delicate piano-led pieces in the latter. This transition was echoed (or perhaps driven) by the emergence of Thom Yorke‘s solo career. During a hiatus following 2004’s Hail to the Thief, the band set off to pursue solo projects, the most high-profile of which being Yorke’s. His debut The Eraser (2006) wasn’t exactly a giant leap given the band’s proclivities towards ghostly textures but it did introduce a heavy alternative fanbase to the world of ambient electronica. This album still contained earworm pop-esque choruses to keep the Radioheads out there on the line with most tracks feeling like they could have plausibly been interspersed among guitar-led tracks on any given Radiohead release. The album also produced arguably one of the best remix albums in rock when Yorke opened up the record to interpretations from a great cast of preeminent producers of the time (The Bug, Four Tet, Modeselektor). They took his already lush creations and amped them up with bangin’, driving beats.
Fast forward to 2019 and Yorke has a few more releases under his belt. 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and last year’s soundtrack to the remake of Suspiria. TMB has some great moments but overall feels like a transition album. It’s trying to leave behind the pop hooks for more nebulous territory but still feels like it’s spinning its wheels a bit. Cut to the latest release Anima, a record that doesn’t feel like a collection of song-sized vignettes but rather one lucid dream where Yorke walks through the various rooms in the house of his dream world. There is an assured consistency to this album that lulls the listener into the kind of hypnosis that induces a dream state and yet at the same time, it’s his most progressive work to date. The loops don’t just rest on their laurels, they evolve and grow appendages. The production process for this album apparently involved Thom Yorke sending long-time Radiohead and Yorke producer Nigel Godrich “sprawling” unfinished tracks that Godrich would then whittle down to more compact pieces to which Yorke could write lyrics. This method definitely affected the feel of the record. Rather than sounding like a conglomeration of disparate parts, the album feels like a sculpture chiselled from a larger initial stone.
The vinyl release features Stanley Donwood’s smudged graphite artwork on a brown, paper bag-like canvas of uncoated stock. The images of lonely landscapes, vacant palace rooms, and a man free-falling into the abyss are starkly contrasted by the bright orange bold font. In addition to the tracks from the wide release, the vinyl concludes with the bonus track ‘(Ladies and Gentlemen, Thank You for Coming)’.
To dive into this album and particularly the nitty-gritty of the vinyl release, we need to go over a quick bit of audio jargon (you audio nerds can skip ahead). A Low Pass Filter (LPF) is an equalizer tool which “rolls off” the higher frequencies of the sound spectrum. Say you had controls for bass, mid and treble, as most people are familiar with. An LPF would be like turning down the treble knob. Thom and Nigel love to use these filters at great length on the majority of the instruments. This has two effects: it leaves ample sonic space for their characteristically “ticky” percussion to come through on the high end and it gels the rest of the instruments into one murky, bubbling cauldron down below. Anima features perhaps their most excessive use of these filters to date. Guitar, bass and synths move like a hydra, striking out in different directions but always attached to the same body. When you stream the album (even at maximum quality, which you all should be using!), the parts become hard to differentiate. With the vinyl, there’s a separation of elements that you just can’t hear in digital form. They still get the desired effect of scintillating percussion and throbbing instruments but the richness of their composition is fully perceptible in this format.
‘Traffic’ pulses and rumbles with big, round bass punctuated by an almost chirpy kick. Waves of shimmering synths wash across the spectrum while the lead hook swells in and out of existence. Peppy handclaps cheer on his darting vocal lines. Yorke again proves to be a master at capturing the paradoxical cacophonous harmony of our modern, metropolitan world. A clanging madness that somehow operates in perfect coordination day after day.
The album is pressed on 2 LPs so it’s two songs and it’s up to flip the record.
‘Twist’ begins with a groove that would feel at home in a mid-90s Underworld album. Kick and hats trading barbs, his sampled “twist” repeating ad nauseum. The sound of a train carving its way through Europe. Out of this monotony, his falsetto merges into the airy synths like watercolours running into each other. Like some wave of euphoric realization. This gives way to ‘Dawn Chorus’ the album’s emotional core, a song #4 revelation that Radiohead fans are very familiar with. A sonorous, nostalgic synth underscores Yorke’s near prosaic delivery. The song’s “If you could do it all again?” proposition plants queries in your mind, offering a reflection of the road behind you. The brilliant thing is that he successfully manages to make you feel good and bad about the past at the same time, as looking back naturally does. Most nostalgic tracks either shine a glowing light on the glory days or stew in the memory of bad decisions and missed opportunities. ‘Dawn Chorus’ throws that all in the pot.
Disc two settles in with the aloof groove of ‘I Am a Very Rude Person’. The casually callous mantra of “You don’t mean a thing, but it won’t bother me” reverberates throughout the track. The singer openly admits his exasperated disdain without losing a modicum of cool. Another seamless transition brings us into the “beep-boop-bap” hook of featured track ‘Not the News’. Pure synth bells echo like an empty train station with copious plate reverb. Then like a car roaring into the station, a non-sequitur gaggle of voices is swept in with overwhelming cello. Yorke and Godrich are finding new peaks to their composition and production talents creating something that is at the same time subtle and sonically astounding. ‘The Axe’ rounds out the side with the discomforting mood of uneasy, pitch-wavering synths and the ominous repetition: “I thought we had a deal”.
The last side delivers another album highlight with ‘Impossible Knots’, a track that bobs and weaves with Yorke’s trademark frenetic energy. Anchored by a fluttering and diving bass line that feels like Radiohead’s ‘Where I End and You Begin’ on speed, Yorke acts as the constant layering on heaps of lofty vocals amid the hurried bedlam below. With the vinyl, the bass becomes three-dimensional giving us the clacks of speedy fingers, the swooping melody at the core of the track, and the grounding fundamental all at once. A track that can not only be heard but felt. The main album concludes with ‘Runawayaway’ a track of loops and mutated vocals that is down the line of evolution from a species that was birthed with Kid A. As with most dreams, the end of Anima has us waking up with more questions than answers.
The bonus track comes in the form of a classic dream scene of being alone on a dark country road. Arpeggiators percolate, occasionally rising to an intensity verging on EDM before settling back down to allow him to speak. You’re not paying attention, you’re distracted, you’re on your phone. You’ve missed the message, you take your eyes off the road. There’s a swell and a surge then cut to black. A poignant commentary on modern life delivered through a fevered reverie. Thom Yorke’s specialty.
Anima showcases two master composers unbound by the need to conform to a rock format, creating an engrossing, seamless album that transports us to a dream world that is a rippled reflection of our own. Yet there are still hooks. Yorke manages to turn the manic repetition of a line like some sort of schizophrenic hobo into a catchy chorus. Idiosyncratic whirs and buzzes from the synths become this album’s iconic guitar riffs. The live show he is currently touring is a spectacle that does justice to the album. Thom and Nigel are joined by visual art coordinator Tarik Barri who created one of the most enthralling visual accompaniments I’ve ever witnessed. The two musicians trade off playing instruments throughout so it never feels like a DJ set with a vocalist. The set included two songs from his killer side project Atoms For Peace but not one Radiohead track. The man has enough of an oeuvre now that pandering with the old material is wholly unnecessary. If he’s is coming to your town in the future, he’s not to be missed and if you’re interested in the album, do yourself a favour and pick up the vinyl. We often think of vinyl as keeping live bands warm and organic but the format has a great effect on albums like this with strong electronic elements.
“Anima” was recently included on Jon’s “Best 50 Albums of the 2010’s” List.