Paranoid Music Box: Thom Yorke's ANIMA Album Reviewed

Thom Yorke’s latest solo offering, ANIMA, sounds like the personal sequel album to Radiohead’s shock and awe masterpiece, Kid A.

Kid A was the national anthem that radically broke the music industry with it’s bold departure. It created a seismic shift that reframed the narrative of not only Radiohead, but it was the singular popular music album that signaled the end of rock and roll as we knew it. It burned the guitars and familiar drum textures in the dumpster out back, and replaced the familiar sonic palette with bloops and bleeps. With cut and paste lyrics that turned humanity into a machine and twisted it so far that the humanity and intention came back out through the speakers. It was a brilliant effort of smoke and mirrors piping directly into our collective ears. Minds were melted. A statement was made. 

And it’s one of the last “rock” albums we all definitely point to. The last hurrah before Napster, before streaming, before we had a million songs in our pocket. Before Steve Jobs changed the world. Kid A was a record of intent of a certain time and place. A shared space.

If Kid A was meant to ironically dominate stadiums filled to max capacity, ANIMA is the same artist, and longtime producer Nigel Godrich, working from hotel rooms and basement studios, intended to go directly and personally out to each of us. Through headphones. Starting intimate conversations and picking up threads. Weaving shared textures.

Call it chill-paranoia. A cousin of the paranoid-android sci-fi branch of rock pioneered by Yorke and Radiohead bandmates. Here, the discomfort in our modern times comes even closer to home. In paired down, minimally backed electronic tracks, Yorke croons and meanders in melodic and sedated tones. He sings of regret, disconnection and the fragility of our so-called shared experience. His lines, sharply written as ever, elucidating truths that we all feel but maybe haven’t articulated for ourselves. Yet when Yorke pulls his lines through the gentle ecosystem of beats and loops, the sentiment hits home.

ANIMA is filled with dream imagery. Upon first listen, it has the sensation of someone waking up from a dream and being forced to deal with a startling new reality. Slowly observing and then reckoning the change in atmosphere from a lost time.

The album’s opening track Traffic, crystalizes this awakening with tonal clarity. The track pulses in as Yorke’s disembodied voice calls out “Yeah.” The first command comes “Submit” followed by “Submerged.” Then comes world play with “Nobody and No body” an incantation to the avatar filled world we anonymously find ourselves drifting through—submerged. We then move immediately into a crystal clear thesis “It’s not good. It’s not right.” And then two more bits of stark imagery “A mirror. A sponge.” In this shattered poetry, Yorke establishes the setting and atmosphere. 90 seconds in, the characters have emerged. 

But then comes a line that straddles hope and irony “But you’re freeeeeeeeee,” Yorke lilts, letting the last syllable roll out and come undone as a chorus of machine-like applause rings out. The bass doubles down.

From here its terse verses and turns of phrase roasting elitist pigs, or apparently “zombies” now. Yorke muses on as the beat sustains. It’s all very dystopian—what else could it be—but there is also a brightness that coarses through the album. It’s as though, three albums into a “side-project” solo career, Yorke has found a sense of mission. A clarity of purpose.

On ANIMA, Yorke and Godrich paint from the same palette they’ve been using since Kid A, however there is a refinement and sophistication here. It suggests that perhaps this is not so much a side project, as it is a alternate project, or a legitimate Thom Yorke vehicle. Worthy of attention, not just as a restless oddity from a creative soul, but as a document of admiration in its own right.

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Below Thom Yorke discusses ANIMA and how his creative process has evolved over the years:

Sound On

Boy band billboard drive by.

Blaring auto-tuned lemon drops of pop.

Spreading over-produced white noise.

Look at all them leather-clad pretty boys.

Angst over nothingness.

Sales over somethingness.

Bleaching all taste from the streets.

Preaching mediocrity with all the right beats.

You already know what the music video looks like.

Pushing every pixel further out from life.

Same retouched photos of the immediate cute.

Putting synths on blast.

Critical thinking on mute.

Stretching expectations and pin ‘em on a backpack.

Instagramming them to a hashtag laugh track.

Look at the art-directed bad boy glares.

Frosted-tip, mean-mug stares.

Get lost in the artificial sheen.

Who cares if we ever know what they mean.

Read the lyric sheets and grow your knowledge.

Hang around at the uni ten years after college.

Street snaps over street smarts.

Thumbs up and glitter hearts.

Nice sample, who cares where it comes from.

And just like that, the billboard’s gone.

As the next one rolls in.

Next verse, same as the first.

Wash it away with the fat straw bubble tea.

As you wait in this line for two times eternity.


Thank You Geoff Emerick

I was saddened to hear of the passing of legendary Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick last week. I was lucky enough to work with him one time and I wanted to share a few memories I had.

I was working on a commercial with film director Tony Kaye who reached out and pulled Geoff in to help us with the music and audio of the spot. One night, Tony and I were talking about the Beatles. At the end of the conversation, it seemed like Tony had some kind of lightbulb go off in his head. We went our separate ways and met back at the studio for the shoot the next day.

As we were shooting the next day, I noticed a gentleman show up on set at one point. We were shooting in a large warehouse in Hollywood and there was a lot of activity going on with the crew. I recognized the man to be Geoff, as I had seen his picture in articles and books over the years. Tony was busy talking to his lighting team, so I went over and introduced myself to Geoff.

We talked about Tony for a little bit and then Geoff asked me about my thoughts for the music and sound of the commercial. I was immediately struck by how passionate he was talking about work. You wouldn’t think the man responsible with helping the Beatles find their signature sound would be that enthused doing anything else, let alone talking about a commercial aimed to sell computers. But Geoff immediately got excited talking about the possibilities of a sound concept for the spot.

Tony, Geoff and I huddled over the next week throwing ideas around. It was a treat to hear stories about being in the studio with the Beatles by a character who was intimately involved. 

Geoff mentioned how he tried his best to never be in a room alone with John Lennon. He respected Lennon, but not surprisingly, Lennon had bullied Geoff around. He said Paul McCartney was like an older brother to him. Often standing up and defending the teenage Geoff from Lennon’s scrutiny.

At one point we were recording cast members audio for the commercial. Geoff really got into it. He obsessed over the pronunciation of every syllable. He made the actors say their lines over and over again. He squinted and listened to their performances through headphones and held them to the highest level. He moaned that he had the same problems with “the Lads,” especially Lennon who was always singing the wrong lyrics or swallowing certain sounds.

During a break one day, I was fiddling around with a song of my own in GarageBand. Geoff came over, sat next to me and leaned into the interface. He was fascinated by the simple recording program. He had me show him different features and how you could basically adjust the audio. He marveled at how portable and instant it all was. He said it would have been perfect for John and Paul to put their ideas down in.

I played a couple of my songs, extremely self-consciously to Geoff. He kindly replied “This is brilliant.” He called out one lyric in particular and said that it was the kind of songwriting John Lennon would do. Everything had a tie back to the Lads. We all loved hearing every anecdote he freely shared.

Another night, we were in Tony Kaye’s home recording studio, just noodling around with Tony’s instruments. I was playing chords on some sort of portable organ. Geoff came over and kept adjusting the settings as I was playing. Making the archaic machine change tones and pitches. It was musical collaboration. I imagined him making the same adjustments with Sir Paul manning the ivories.

One day Tony, Geoff and I were talking about “modern music.” I remember Geoff specifically calling out Kendrick Lamar and Justin Timberlake. He went on and on about the recording fidelity of Timberlake’s latest album. “Every sound is utterly perfect. Nothing else should come close for the Grammy.” Again, I was struck by how generously positive he was. He definitely held his time and contribution to the Beatles in highest regard, but in my short time spent with him, he openly embraced and acknowledged the creative efforts of others.

Geoff’s legacy will live on for his contributions to the most revolutionary band in music history. I am personally grateful for the kindness and he showed in our short time working together.

Time to go put Sgt. Peppers on again and pay special attention to those non-traditional sounds that Geoff found and engineered into the album.

Below is the commercial Tony, Geoff and I worked on together.