Beneath The Surface: Thom Yorke – Anima

Thom Yorke’s solo release, driven by nuances of electronic and minimalist sounds, takes an experimental approach to create a compelling concept album.

Anima is the latest body of work from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Coming three years after the band’s dreary, emotionally packed album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Anima sees Yorke solo (aside from his co-producer, Nigel Godrich), further exploring many of his familiar stylistic influences, with relatively minor distinctions from his prior releases. Every track on the record gets a full, but minimal, treatment of synthesizers, white noise, and understated vocal lines. The record echoes lyrical themes of dystopian futurism, self-transformation, and technological development. This release was also accompanied by a short film of the same title, which is not covered in this review but is available with a Netflix subscription.

The first track, “Traffic”, sets the tone for the album. Yorke laments societal corruption and the rising role of social media in people’s everyday lives, singing “Submit, submerged, no body.” The piece also takes heavy influence from electronica and dance music. The instrumental is progressive, and builds on itself with (supposedly) analog synthesizers and electronic drum kits.

Next, we segue into “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)”. Personally, I see this as a weak point on the record, as the track plays like something gone wrong on a Jon Hopkins record. This track sees the same forms of experimentation as “Traffic” while allowing Yorke’s vocals to come further into the forefront of the mix. While this is effective in the first half of the song, it loses its way in the back half when it introduces an unpleasant, whirring synth sound that serves little purpose other than to remind the listener that they’re listening to an experimental record.

Conversely, the pseudo-ballad, “Dawn Chorus”, is one of the album’s brightest moments. Yorke croons in a forlorn tone over ambient pads and strings, as he lyrically reflects on lost love, regret, and inability to change. This is a fantastic example of a track that does not try to be more than it is, and finds solace in its simplicity. Of all the moments on the record, this one evoked the most observable visceral response for me. There is not a single “standout” line in this piece, which is part of its beauty. The lyrics weave a larger narrative, following the progressive form of the instrumental.

“Not The News” brings back the aforementioned whirring synth but pairs it with a more cohesive set of lyrics. The second stanza reads, “A fortune teller, sea bird feather, cue the sliding violins, in sympathy.” I interpret this as Yorke losing grip on an optimistic perspective as the world descends into disarray. The sound of sliding violins can symbolize melancholy, which is confirmed when the listener is affirmed of the violins’ sympathetic tone. In this context, the sound that ruined “Last I Heard” for me is actually very effective. I find this implementation of the synth to be far less offensive, and even slightly additive to the track’s intentional monotony.

The album’s finale, “Runwayaway”, subtly departs from the tone of the rest of the album. Although the same motifs of instrumental and lyrical repetition, driving synths, and time-consuming progression are as present as ever, this song has a distinction. It does not rise throughout the piece, concluding with its climax.

It slowly devolves into nothingness.

The nearly six-minute cut sees its climax around the four-minute mark. After this point, it begins slowly stripping away instruments one by one until we’re left with only a muffled kick drum and Yorke’s understated, pained groaning in the background. Narratively, this track strikes me as a surrender of sorts. The protagonist in the world that Yorke has built gives himself to a dysfunctional society, begrudgingly accepting that he is unable to change it. It’s an understated but powerful ending. 

All things considered, this record is very effective for what it is: a concept album.

Some cuts are beautiful and artistic, while others fail to strike me with much purpose at all. I believe that Yorke intended for many moments on this record to sound underwhelming, as they contribute to the narrative of monotony in everyday life. While I don’t think the singer explored any uncharted territory, he seems to incorporate a bit more electronic (particularly techno and minimal) flair than usual. I look forward to hearing Yorke’s next body of work!

Rating: 7/10
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Photo taken from: Pitchfork
Written by: Grant Jordan

Grant Jordan