The lonely encounter with the self: a review of Thom Yorke’s “Anima”


Rating: 8.1/10

“If you could do it all again / This time with style.” 

So ends “Dawn Chorus,” the devastating song from Thom Yorke’s latest album release “Anima.” The song processes an elegiac sense of memory and past events  with a melancholy desire for those moments to repeat. After all, what good memories do we not secretly wish would become real again, if not to feel that way again but to actually appreciate those moments for what they were? 

Humans are creatures that rely on memory, and for many of the past haunts us. Yorke’s lyrics have often concentrated on aspects of life that haunt him, such as machines, artificial intelligence, and climate change. This time around he seems oppressed by the weight of time, by memory itself, barely able to squeeze out a barely sung spoken-word enjoining another to join him in this fantasy replay.

“If you could do it all again / yeah without a second thought.” He says earlier in the song. But then we get another evocation, another shift in mood: “If you could do it all again / big deal so what.” 

“Dawn Chorus” also soundtracks the final part of the “Anima” short film. Where the first part of the film is jagged, depicting train riders in alternating periods of sleeping and waking, the end of the film is elegant, graceful, moving reverently with the dancers. The slow moving shots down alleyways and streets are evocative of Terrence Malick’s work, where characters often dance around each other in artistic expressions of their relationship. The sense of union, of lives conjoined, is tangible. At the very end, though, Thom falls back out of the embrace of his lover, seeming to be tired beyond words just as dawn’s glow falls on his face, the silhouette of flying birds moving through the light.

The song “Dawn Chorus,” it turns out, is a decade old. It’s another one of those Radiohead songs that has been long mythologized, and only grown in reputation as long as it’s gone unrecorded and unreleased. The inclusion of the song on “Anima” echoes the appearance of “True Love Waits” on Radiohead’s most recent LP “A Moon Shaped Pool,” another song that fans eagerly anticipated a studio version of. When “True Love Waits” was finally released, it was wildly different from its acoustic guitar-led live version, 

Much of the album draws itself from the quirky dance music Thom Yorke has associated himself with for the last decade. Thick beats decorate the synthetic pads and choruses of voices that circle in, swell, and fall away throughout the arrangements. Although the album is consistently electronic and synthetic in its sound, there are moments where Yorke’s recent work as a movie scorer shows, such as in “Twist” and “Not the News.” These sections pull us toward multiplicity even as most of the record lends us a feeling of being stuck inside one mind, like someone’s personal world of dreams or in the throes of an anxiety attack. The music on “Anima” could be suffocating or deliciously intimate, depending on what you concentrate on.

“Anima” diverts from Radiohead with this insularity of both mood and sound, as well as by avoiding the trappings of melody and traditional song arrangement. Though Radiohead has always played at the fringes of this kind of experimentation, this album is farther removed from pop/rock music than Radiohead will ever be. Many diehard Radiohead fans are familiar with this, and appreciate Thom’s commitment to exploring this side of himself, even as some describe most of his music as a bunch of “bleeps and bloops.” Thom’s wandering sounds and granular transitions trap the listener in a daydream of sorts, one that rewards slipping into the stream and relinquishing all control.

In this way “Twist” is worth letting yourself fall into. It’s “Anima’s” most dynamic song, transitioning from an electronic voice incessantly repeating the word “Twist” over busy beatwork to a subtly rich tapestry of sound where Thom’s falsetto easily blends into soft synths: “A tiny shell left in my hand / Sings woe betides and woe begones / With just enough love to go ‘round.” But that’s only half of the seven minute song. Slow washes of string and synth decorate the mantra of “It’s like weed” in a very Radiohead-like outro.

The whole process of “Anima” seems less like a planned composition than a haphazard trip through the creative process, like we’re flipping through random pages of Yorke’s notebook and accessing a stream of memories and thoughts and observations that rise into view only to fall away again. There are moments of tranquility here, such as in “Dawn Chorus,” but also lurking feelings laced with doubt and dread, such as in “The Axe”: “Goddamned machinery / Why don’t you speak to me? / One day I am gonna take an axe to you.”

“Anima” is undoubtedly at its best when Thom doesn’t overload us with beats and percussion hits, as he frustratingly does on “Traffic.” The hand claps not only feel trite but overwhelm the song as much as horrendous traffic does during rush hour. This, of course, may very well be Thom’s intention. Like on “The Axe,” much of music reflects frustration and fascination with technology and progress, with its broken promises and daily infiltration into our lives.

“Anima” is based off of Carl Jung’s theory of the unconscious, and the clues are right there in the title. The Anima, according to Jung, is the unconscious feminine side of man. Jung considered the encounter with the Anima the “masterpiece” in an individual male’s development. At the same time we encounter these parts of ourselves, we realize how powerful these unconscious parts of ourselves are, a feeling that can spark a feeling of isolation in many people.

The sense of irrevocable loneliness, even in the face of companionship and closeness with another person, is a persistent theme here. The accompanying film by Paul Thomas Anderson, a longtime collaborator with Yorke and the rest of Radiohead, drives that home for us. “I’m tied up in impossible knots,” Yorke sings near the album’s end. The dance of life, which we see in the video, brings us close together at times, though we know that eventually we must retreat to our own private worlds, as Yorke does at video’s end. We all encounter our unconscious selves sooner or later.

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