Album Review: Thom Yorke - 'Anima'

27 June 2019 | 11:40 am | Christopher H James

"'Anima' might be [Yorke's] definitive solo record."

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What do “the father of modern analytical psychiatry” Carl Jung and global chart-toppers BTS have in common with the Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke? We’ll explain. 

BTS’ recent Map Of The Soul: Persona is a concept album based around Jung’s theory that says we each wear a mask, a persona, in public to make friends and integrate socially. BTS have been praised by renowned academics for their application of Jung’s ideas in their lyrics which portray a pursuit of self-discovery, despite constant adulation that can make personal flaws difficult to identify. Whether BTS are truly seeking enlightened self-awareness or merely presenting a fictitious chapter in a self-aggrandised, diligently manicured marketing myth is for you to decide. But in this anxious, screen-addicted age where young people possess more resources than ever with which to curate a highly selective, attractive and ultimately fake version of themselves, BTS’ quest, or supposed quest, for authenticity is a positive, timely narrative. 

Anima is named after another Jungian concept, specifically the unconscious feminine side of a man. Unsurprisingly though, Yorke’s examination of the mind is darker, self-destructive even, expressing in interviews his aim to create music in which he no longer recognises himself. This statement fits with historical song and album titles such as How To Disappear Completely and The Eraser. There are a few different ways this might work out. One could try to obliterate all trappings of the outer persona and in doing so reveal a candid picture of one’s true self, or one might try to eradicate all echoes of the inner being, rendering the music cold, impersonal, perhaps even inhuman. But there are many finely observed human qualities in Yorke’s music, past and present, even if they are overwhelmingly negative ones.

Lyrically, Anima is Yorke at his most oblique, although as we might’ve expected, dystopia, disconnection and continuous anxiety are all apparent ongoing concerns. In a tribute to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin imagined a novel that takes lines from each song, telling the story of an assassin who wanders through a strange city in search of the identity of the person he must kill. Extrapolating on Rankin’s idea, the frustrated assassin might then lose his own identity in an environment he can’t understand. Something similar could be derived from Anima’s song titles, not least the image-conjuring Last I Heard (…He Was Circling The Drain), a chilly, disorientating track where keys shift in odd patterns around layers of disembodied vocals. On Anima, Yorke’s voice is often dehumanised, saturated in reverb or fading away. “Goddamn machinery/Why won’t it speak to me?” he wails on The Axe, his apparent technophobia seemingly at odds with his obvious love for electronic instruments. 

Anima is doused in IDM-isms, from the melodically throbbing bassline and '90s techno hi-hats of Traffic, to strikingly Boards Of Canada-esque tones on Dawn Chorus. Yorke seems to appreciate cerebral dance music figures given his manic movements on stage and accounts of how he overcame onstage anxiety through dancing. To lose yourself to dance (as Daft Punk might put it) is to relinquish your inhibitions. To lose yourself completely is to totally disregard how others see you, annihilating your persona. 

Yorke had struggled with “writer’s block” prior to throwing himself into ambitious, difficult projects, specifically his recent Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes performances and the Suspiria soundtrack, of which he admitted to being “wildly” out of his depth. His reward for stepping outside his comfort zone has been a renewal of creativity and a consolidation of his core sound and writing strengths. Despite wishing to erase himself from his music, Anima might be his definitive solo record.