by Jericho Cerrona
The idea of dystopian vibrations coming from living in a technologically advanced society has always been a major component of Thom Yorke’s work. For years, Radiohead distilled the idea of being swallowed by the impersonal void of techno-babble, especially on albums like OK Computer, KID A, and Amnesiac. Yorke’s solo work has also dabbled in this area as well, combining his fear of the future with a more pronounced emphasis on downtempo electronica. ANIMA is certainly the songwriter’s most expansive release yet, and also his darkest and most disturbed. Fans who may have been put off by the restrained tone of 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will find much more to chew on here, as the album takes some of the blippy soundscapes from Yorke’s excellent 2006 solo debut Eraser and adds notes of dark avant-techno.
From a production standpoint, ANIMA is a triumph. Yorke and longtime producer Nigel Godrich dig into a variety of layered compositions (it isn’t simply glitchy beats and synth stabs), and everything is balanced to the point of being awe-inspiring. Perhaps such a meticulous aesthetic approach isn’t a surprise given someone of Yorke’s talents and means, but the record sounds incredible. In that sense, ANIMA is the perfect “headphone” album experience.
One of Yorke’s strongest assets as a songwriter is his ability to meld melody with abstraction, and that tension is held on a razors edge throughout ANIMA. Opener “Traffic” has a pulsating electronic groove and standard song structure, but on “Twist”, the bustling bass line and skittering beat segue into into warm synth patches and choir-like chants. “Dawn Chorus” strips things back to brilliant effect using only a delay-soaked piano, airy synths, and Yorke’s downtrodden vocals. It’s one of the album’s simplest songs, but also one of its best; tapping into that melancholic balance between hope and dread. On the whole, ANIMA is dense but not overly cluttered. Whereas younger artists working in the electronic genre often tend to blow out their sound and overcomplicate things, Yorke proves the adage that less is more.
There is something about Yorke’s music that has always felt like an alien observing the mundane activities of the human race, but here, there’s a genuine openness absent from much of his past work. It’s almost as if the Orwellian fears of a society bereft of human empathy dictated by machines is now upon us, and Yorke, who has been sheepishly reacting to such a future for decades, has come full circle. The social network and the neural networks of our subconscious are intertwined. The robots may be making music now powered by AI, but there’s no mistaking the human touch at the heart of ANIMA.
Perhaps the greatest collision of these two worlds is the music video short directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which takes three songs from the album and reimagines them as a kind of choreographed dreamstate. It’s a stunning vision, and all the more alarming that it finds its home on the almighty Netflix algorithm. If ANIMA doesn’t quite reach the heights of Yorke’s work with Radiohead or even the crisp accessibility of Eraser, it’s not for lack of effort. This is the end of all things, after all, and Yorke will go down mumbling into the void.