“Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then,” Philip K. Dick wrote in A Scanner Darkly. Thom Yorke, modern music’s paranoid soothsayer, has, since OK Computer in 1997, often been called “prescient” for his neurotic, cryptic lyrics, so obsessed with systems of communication, with the existential angst of modernity, with the inchoate history of technology and its pervasiveness in our lives. Yorke isn’t exactly a Luddite (though his new album, Anima, does contain the line: “Goddamn machinery / Why don’t you speak to me / One day I’m gonna take an axe to it”). He’s just deeply anxious, and with good reason: the world is a scary place. Anima, which is a Jungian term for the unconscious female consciousness of a man, opens with aural oscillations, computerized abstractions, and glitchy percussion beats before Yorke goes, “Submit / Submerge / Nobody, nobody / It’s not good / It’s not right.” A synth, a drum machine, Yorke’s inimitable voice filtered through sundry effects — it’s a sparse album, but densely layered, with Nigel Godrich’s dexterous production turning Yorke’s laptop music into disconsolate pseudo-dance music. Yorke has said that he wrote Anima after a period of creative stagnation, and that his fascination (perhaps obsession) with sleep influenced the writing and recording of the album. There is a somnolent quality to the more atmospheric moments, recalling Yorke’s work on last year’s Suspiria. One wonders if this is what it sounds like when computers dream.
A synth, a drum machine, Yorke’s inimitable voice filtered through sundry effects — it’s a sparse album, but densely layered, with Nigel Godrich’s dexterous production turning Yorke’s laptop music into disconsolate pseudo-dance music.
But Anima isn’t all paranoia and doom. It also contains some of Yorke’s tenderest music. The lines “All tied up in impossible knots / I’ll take anything you got” exude an air of desperation. Some of the enigmatic, lyrical phrases are redolent of the great John Ashbery, whose surrealist syntax beguiled as much as it befuddled. On “Twist,” Yorke sings, “To you who brought me back to life / Twisted thorns that grow inside / Shingle washing my bone.” Halfway through, the song’s anxiety is assuaged, and the music becomes calmer, almost soporific. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool was haunted: Yorke and his partner of 23 years, the son of his children, separated in 2015, and she died of cancer a year later. The album’s final song, the elegiac “True Love Waits,” is the progenitor of Anima’s “Dawn Chorus,” a gentle, fleeting track. “If you could do it all again / Big deal, so what? / Please let me know / When you’ve had enough.” Yorke collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom Jonny Greenwood has scored four films, on a 15-minute music video which contains three songs from the album. (Anderson directed the gorgeous video for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” in which Yorke walks through an endless series of doors until he ends up asleep in a cave.) The video begins with on a London subway, amid a crowd of dazed passengers, garbed in grays and blacks, is Yorke, who soon embarks on a oneiric journey, with slanted floors and much-choreographed dancing. The video encapsulates Yorke’s concerns with modernity and the frailty of human connection, themes which pervade the album — and Yorke’s entire career. It ends with Yorke and his real-life partner, Dajana Roncione, embracing on a bus, suggesting we may not all be doomed after all.