Review: Thom Yorke finds dread beneath the glamour of ‘Anima’
Being embraced by the show-business establishment hasn’t made Thom Yorke feel all warm and fuzzy.
Last year, the famously gloomy Radiohead frontman made the shortlist for the Academy Awards’ original song category with his haunting title theme from director Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.” And, in March, he was inducted along with the rest of Radiohead into that back-slappiest of institutions, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Yet nothing about Yorke’s new solo album, “Anima,” suggests that this 50-year-old veteran is looking forward to getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Who are these people?” he wails to open “Not the News,” while “Dawn Chorus” offers a typically fraught confession: “I think I miss something, but I’m not sure what.”
Could he be longing for the days when Radiohead was known as a proudly iconoclastic guitar band — the kind more likely to intimidate a studio executive than to be wooed by one? This month, after hours of demos from 1997’s “OK Computer” leaked online, Radiohead officially released the trove through the streaming platform Bandcamp; the music reminded you how much energy Yorke used to draw from deconstructing classic rock textures and structures.
But no: Built mostly from buzzing synth squiggles and twitchy rhythmic loops, “Anima” has little to do (beyond Yorke’s strangled moan) with the sound of “OK Computer” or Radiohead’s other hand-played efforts. And the album comes with its own Hollywood connection in the form of an accompanying short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood scored an Oscar nomination in 2018 for his score for Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.”
In other words, Yorke may not be happy in this newly rarefied air, but that’s no reason to leave — especially when he knows he probably wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.
Indeed, the sense of dread on “Anima,” due Thursday, feels tied to Yorke’s vague, if deeply held, conviction that politics and technology have combined to create a global menace from which there’s no hiding. In “Last I Heard (He Was Circling the Drain),” he describes being “swallowed up by the city”; “I Am a Very Rude Person” has him insisting, “I have to find some way to escape.”
Other tracks on the album, which Yorke has said was partly inspired by the work of Carl Jung, depict even sleep as being unsafe from overreach by the government or the corporations from which it’s increasingly indistinguishable.
Produced by Yorke’s longtime right hand Nigel Godrich, with whom the singer performed some of these tracks live on tour last year, “Anima” is slightly more songful than Yorke’s previous solo record, 2014’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.” (That’s not counting last year’s “Suspiria” soundtrack, which mostly wasn’t meant to be songful.) “I Am a Very Rude Person” and “Impossible Knots” both ride funk grooves that recall Atoms for Peace, the short-lived side project with bassist Flea that Yorke briefly revived during a gig in December at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles.
And “Dawn Chorus,” with Yorke’s low, breathy vocals over a halting keyboard pattern, is one of the prettiest things he’s ever written — a strangely tender ballad delivered from “the middle of the vortex,” as he puts it, where “soot from the chimney pot” forms “spiral patterns of you, my love.”
“Dawn Chorus” features prominently in Anderson’s movie, which follows Yorke through a bleakly futuristic cityscape as he tries to return a missing bag to its owner. Due Thursday on Netflix, the film has no dialogue but tells its story through intricate choreography by Damien Jalet, who also worked on “Suspiria.” And though serious Radiohead fans will know “Anima” doesn’t mark Yorke’s screen debut as a dancer — who could forget the endlessly memed “Lotus Flower” video? — it’s striking to see this often-glum little dude throw his body into the project with such abandon; at moments his movement comes close to Broadway, even Charlie Chaplin.
Like “Anima” the album, Anderson’s film isn’t always easy to parse. At the end of the short — spoiler alert — Yorke’s character finally catches up with the woman who lost her bag (she’s played by the musician’s real-life girlfriend, Italian actor Dajana Roncione) and the two mime something like romance. Then he falls into a blissful-looking slumber — a condition, of course, that Yorke has already told us is not to be trusted.
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