Earlier this month, a strange advertisement for ANIMA Technologies appeared inside London’s Tube. The company purported to have built something called a “Dream Camera,” a device capable of capturing the world of the unconscious: “Just call or text the number and we’ll get your dreams back,” the copy promised. But curious callers were treated to a cryptic voice message, a jumble of stilted legalese read in a thin, unctuous voice, that apparently rendered the Dream Camera’s promise moot: something about a cease and desist from the High Court, an admission of “serious and flagrant unlawful activities.”
There were only ever two things this ad could be: Some exhausting promo for the worst “Black Mirror” episode yet or an oblique tease of Thom Yorke’s third solo album, ANIMA. Dreams and a healthy distrust of a techno-dystopia have long been pillars of Radiohead and Yorke’s songwriting. The wires of the brain and the wires of the world are forever being crossed: Fake plastic trees, paranoid androids, mobiles chirping, low-flying panic attacks. So of course the man who has sung about the narcotized rhythms of urban life would want to snap commuters out of their reveries with a once-in-a-lifetime promise. Dreams, nightmares, and sleepwalking haunt the songs of ANIMA, Yorke’s most ambitious and assured solo album yet. It is the darkest and tenderest music he has released outside of Radiohead, floating uneasily through the space between societal turmoil and internal monologue.
ANIMA is the product of what Yorke has described as an extended period of anxiety, and it sounds like it, full of wraithlike frequencies and fibrillating pulses. That’s not a huge surprise: Yorke’s solo material has always sounded anxious, sometimes to its detriment. Where The Eraser, his solo debut, largely succeeded in channeling the decade’s post-millennium tension into compellingly moody electronic abstractions, 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes too often felt claustrophobic, morose, enervated. In contrast, ANIMA’s tone throughout is meaty, full-blooded, often a little menacing. Yorke’s melancholy has grown teeth.
Yorke has long been a fan of left-of-center dance music; remixes commissioned for The Eraser and The King of Limbs constituted a who’s who of the European club vanguard. But this is the first of his own productions where it feels like he and longtime production partner Nigel Godrich really get it, where their beatmaking strides beyond contemporary fashion. The influence of James Holden and his Border Community label, an avant-techno touchstone, is all over ANIMA’s burly bass synths and jabbing pulses. Syncopated, spring-loaded grooves are reminiscent of Four Tet and Floating Points; the blippy “Not the News” channels Zomby and Actress. Yet for all the music’s heavy electronic bent, it isn’t obviously mapped to a rhythmic grid: It slips and slides all over the place, wheezy synths surging in waves, feeling restless and hungry. Yorke treats climaxes with a boxer’s strategy—feinting, falling back, changing the angle of his attack.
Critics have sometimes complained—understandably, if not always correctly—that Yorke’s solo work has felt incomplete. As frontman and linchpin of one of the world’s most dynamic rock bands, Yorke has had to work doubly hard to convince listeners that his late nights in front of a laptop are equally worthy of their attention. But ANIMA proves how much he and Godrich are capable of on their own. His bandmates’ influence colored The Eraser; on the more unmoored Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, their absence loomed large. But here he and Godrich have perfected a sound of their own, one that doesn’t take Radiohead’s achievements as its primary unit of measurement.
Track after track, Yorke proves the importance of stripping back. It’s remarkable how much he can make out of so little: The best songs here get by on the strength of just one or two synthesizer patches, a handful of electronic drum sounds—mostly just scraped white noise, plus the occasional booming kick drum—and his voice, processed and layered as often as is needed. “Impossible Knots” rides a propulsive electric bassline that lands somewhere between Afrobeat and Fugazi; the closing “Runwayaway” makes trance-like use of Tuareg-inspired desert blues guitar. There’s not much else. Every element practically dares you to so much as ask for any further accompaniment.
There are a few outright topical songs—“The Axe” (“Goddamned machinery, why don’t you speak to me?/One day I am gonna take an axe to you”) will resonate with anyone who suspects technological progress is moving in the wrong direction—but for the most part, Yorke’s lyrics remain imagistic, non-specific, as intractable as eye floaters. Fragmentary lines play out like pages ripped from a journal on the nightstand. Sometimes he seems to be muttering to himself; elsewhere his voice is chopped into a jumble of words dangled teasingly near the outer limits of meaning. “Twist” ends with an incantation that might be straight from a horror film: “A boy on a bike who is running away/An empty car in the woods, the motor left running.” We’re whipped back into the hypnopompic logic of Yorke’s tangled thoughts, the fogged film of ANIMA’s Dream Camera.
A short film by Paul Thomas Anderson for Netflix accompanies the album, sequencing “Not the News,” “Traffic,” and “Dawn Chorus” into a single audiovisual suite. Its opening shots—a subway car full of commuters in drab colors, their exaggerated movements a herky-jerky pantomime of restless slumber—explicitly link back to those ANIMA Technologies subway ads, playfully smudging the edges of the album’s world and our own. Exquisitely choreographed by Damien Jalet, the film takes the form of a dream sequence, following Yorke as he follows a woman (played by his partner, Dajana Roncione) along a labyrinthine subterranean course.
Both the album and the film hinge upon “Dawn Chorus,” one of the simplest, most beautiful songs in Yorke’s catalog. It is a reverential song about loss, nostalgia, and regret; a farewell to the departed and a celebration of second chances. Over patient synthesizer harmonies, Yorke mulls over ghosts of a past life, shadows of what might have been: “If you could do it all again,” he muses, each line trailing off into non sequitur, each stanza a stack of stray puzzle pieces. At the song’s apex, the synthesizers pause and crescendo softly, modulating as Yorke sings, his voice hushed:
In the middle of the vortex
The wind picked up
Shook up the soot
From the chimney pot
Into spiral patterns
Of you my love
If there’s a more perfect image of absence than these ashes dancing in midair, I don’t know it. Anderson’s film ends with Yorke awakening on the train, his face bathed in the light of daybreak as “Dawn Chorus” winds down. A moment before, he and Roncione have been locked in an intimate embrace, but as he opens his eyes, it is clear that he is alone. The song’s title has been a part of Radiohead lore for years now; only they know what other forms it might have taken, other meanings it might have accrued. But here, on a song starkly unadorned, Yorke expands his already vast catalog with a perfect, unforgettable song, an elegy for the dreams that cannot be retrieved.
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