Thom Yorke describes his excellent new solo album Anima as “dystopian,” which isn’t exactly the hugest surprise in the world. With or without Radiohead, he’s spent his whole career mapping out the dystopia we’re living in—he does futuristic apocalypse the way John Fogerty does choogle. Yorke could have spent the entire record freestyling new verses for “Old Town Road” and it still would have turned out dystopian. But nobody could accuse him of overreacting. At a moment when the world is in even scarier shape than the last time Radiohead took its temperature, on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, he’s moved on to new nightmares.
Anima is 48 minutes of abstract electro confessionals, written and produced in close collaboration with Nigel Godrich in a fit of Flying Lotus-inspired experimentation. Within the first few minutes, Yorke’s digitally warped voice is gulping “I can’t breathe” and “there’s no water” over “Idioteque”-style synth swerves and glitch-wave percussion loops. He’s tapping into anxieties both geopolitical and personal. It’s “woke,” but in the sense of “sleep-deprived so long the fluttering of your eyelids booms like kettledrums,” and that realm of paranoid body-freezing anxiety is the zone where Yorke feels right at home.
Anima goes with a 15-minute “one-reeler” film with longtime Radiohead cohort Paul Thomas Anderson, set to three of the tracks and co-starring Yorke’s partner, Italian theater actress Dajana Roncione. (The film debuts on Netflix June 27, at the same time as the album.) The music has the open-ended feel of Yorke’s recent projects—his film score for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake as well as Atoms for Peace. There’s none of the uplifting rock-band rush of last year’s acclaimed Radiohead tour. Instead, he strips down for the old-school beatbox claps of “The Axe,” muttering, “Goddamn machinery, why won’t it speak to me? One day I am gonna take an axe to it.” It builds to a very Yorkean question, as he queries his computer screen: “Where’s that love you promised me?”
Like his previous solo albums The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, it’s shaped into discrete songs that stand on their own, yet the scenery is always in flux. A typical highlight is the superbly titled “I Am A Very Rude Person,” with its sinuous twist-and-crawl bassline under an eerie Gregorian-chant choir. “I have to destroy to create,” Yorke sneers. “I have to be rude to your face / I’m breaking up the turntables / Now I’m gonna watch your party die.” His voice fades under a guitar loop that builds like Robert Fripp filtered through Sonic Youth’s “Karen Koltrane.” The party dies, but not without a fight.
The prize is “Dawn Chorus,” a title well known to Radiohead fans as an unrecorded bootleg track dating back to the In Rainbows era. It’s complex but sparse, with a lonesome phased keyboard drone while Yorke murmurs as if waking up from a dream: “I think I miss something, but I’m not sure what.” It makes a striking contrast with the killer finale, “Runawayaway.” It’s a swirl of Byrdsian guitar jangle—after a whole album where guitars are almost entirely absent—while Yorke repeats, over and over, “This is when you know who your real friends are.” As if to imply: Better hope you have some. “Runawayaway” is the kind of climactic album-closer that’s always been a Yorke speciality, from “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” to “Videotape” to “Nose Grows Some.” He sounds anxious, helpless, enraged—yet he also sounds unmistakably alive. And on an album as bleak as Anima, that’s a very welcome sign of hope.