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.


Winding Down Game of Thrones

Ending Game of Thrones in a way that left all fans emotionally satisfied was always going to be a difficult task. With such a novelistic, open-world approach to story telling, finding the right combination of characters to bring closure to through the right combination of decisions is a 70 odd episode Rubix Cube. Everyone had their own favorite character and passionately demanded either an “epic death” or a role of significance in the final moments. Tying up the loose ends of every last character is more likely possible in a 3000-plus page novel, than in a 6-episode work of prestige television.

I thought the ending “worked.” A couple of nitpicks were that some elements felt rushed and there was no final second twist on par with the infamous Red Wedding episode. The series had trained us to anticipate grisly mis-directions. The ending felt more like a gradual winding down of a finely calibrated clock tower. We got to witness the confrontation the entire series had been leading to between Jon Snow and Daenerys. It may have been a little telegraphed, but there was enough nuance in the performance to portray the complexity and conflict around Jon’s decision. And I liked the iconic gesture of burning down the very symbol of the show itself in the final moments.

Bran on the throne felt like a fair enough move character wise. He was a victim with no real bad blood between any of the major characters. He was a safe choice. His appointment does leave a lot to the imagination to figure out how he will rule. By love or fear? I wonder how he will flex his ruling muscles when the people under him refuse his orders.

We’ve heard that Game of Thrones prequels are in the works, but it seems clear that sequels focusing on the new adventures of the Stark children is another chapter (or series of books) to explore. As with most great shows, the best seasons probably lie somewhere in the middle of the series. During a time when nothing needed to be wrapped into a tidy bow, and the conflict and threat of future retribution was at most tense and dramatic levels. Time will tell how the series ages, but I think the creators found a satisfactory ending to a monumental task for a scripted television show.

The Mamba Mentality Reviewed

I just finished reading Kobe Bryant’s first book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. In which he basically cements the late career caricature of Kobe Bryant that fans of the game know and expect by this point. These are the musings of Kobe Bryant as some kind of basketball playing Chuck Norris meme. Talking in the first person to make it feel conversational, but still having the egotism of an athlete speaking in the third person. The Mamba Mentality is basically the Nike #KobeSystem commercial, adapted into an ebook. It’s a funny schtick and vehicle for trash talk, but you know there is something deep and insightful lurking under the surface.

Where you want to find something revelatory, you are presented with vignetted takes that feel like rushed off afterthoughts between movie viewings on a long international flight. It’s like if Seth Godin wrote about basketball. The first half of the book speaks in recycled locker room talk that anyone who played high school sports will be well familiar with. It’s the rah-rah fare of “give your blood, sweat and tears to the game and the game will give back to you.” Where you are hoping for a deep cut or a behind closed doors anecdote of a private chat with Phil Jackson, you get a rearranged version of something your high school jayvee coach told you.

The most interesting part of the book is the second half which focuses on Kobe’s discussion of “his craft.” Core NBA fans will be familiar with most of Kobe’s inspiration and thoughts on his competition, but it’s still enjoyable to hear the specifics of how he approached particular matchups. He riffs on the career arcs of KD, LeBron, James Harden and others who came up behind him. There are some solid bits in their about how he led Team USA to gold medal glory.

The Shaw-Kobe “feud” is presented the way it’s been told ever since the two publicly reconciled a few years ago. Kobe goes on about how the “beef” was fabricated by Shaw and himself to keep the other players on edge and carry their weight. I always felt the alleged rift was more Hollywood fiction than the media presented it as. They were just too good and dominate together to believe that they would actually be warring. Needless to say, there is no shade thrown at Shaq.

The best anecdote for me was when he was discussing infamous and self-proclaimed “Kobe-stopper” Ruben Patterson. Of course he called out the red flag waving nature of Patterson’s claim, but he offered up an interesting counter. Kobe confessed that Patterson was making the claim in order to drive up his contract value heading into free-agency. Kobe said had Patterson approached Kobe privately and asked for him to make a statement along the lines of “Ruben is the best defender in the NBA,” he would have done it. However, Patterson’s mistake was in taking his “Kobe-stopper” moniker to the press before consulting Kobe. Hence the Mamba was intent on destroying him. That story alone probably adds the most nuance to the true psychology of the Mamba mentality. It’s a little bit Godfather and a lot of parts Kill Bill. Kobe wants to be remembered as the “thinking assassin.” Einstein with a silencer.

The books closing seconds feel rushed off. Kobe attempts a pivot and shot at the buzzer by hoisting the notion that his life and career in basketball was all one long runner to his future as a storyteller and writer. He holds his Oscar in the air, still obsessed with trophies and tells the world that he will bring the Mamba Mentality to his storytelling.

There is something overcompensating about Kobe’s whole late career bravado. His insistence on building up his own legend. His highlights, stats and championships speak for themselves. Perhaps it’s just his competitive spirit thirsting to campaign and win over the remaining doubters. Maybe it’s his reaction to the social media era of sports and especially the NBA now, where all the stars are living brands, crafting their own narratives at the height of their powers. It will be interesting to follow Kobe deeper into his post-NBA life. I can’t help but feel there is something fueling this Mamba Mentality that maybe Kobe himself doesn’t even understand yet. I hope he keeps trying to define it.

Top athletes have never been great at framing up and putting their mentality into perspective beyond the cliches. So here is my challenge to Kobe the storyteller: Tell us something we don’t know. Tell us something that only you could tell us. Find your voice beyond the meme. It was a pretty funny character and we all appreciated it. I know your competitive spirit will keep haunting and driving you. I hope it drives you to write something that surprises you. And scares you even. And when that day comes, I hope you will dare to expose that truth to the rest of us.

You’re welcome.