Its revelatory beats create a full spectrum as unnerving as they are welcome.
At first, Radiohead was a band. At some point, maybe around the time they began using Pynchon-inspired communication systems, they turned into something more like a movement, an icy, anti-corporate beast with a conflicted relationship to technology. Stunt announcements became the norm (calling Radiohead hotline numbers remains the Gen X version of calling the weather line, though the current answering voice sounds less lifelike than its predecessor). As the group members moved into solo territory, they took their own interrelated foci with them. Thom Yorke’s icy anxiety glitters across his electronic twists, nervous but surprisingly unbreakable. After a surprise guerrilla marketing campaign in London, ANIMA takes that aesthetic to a more fully realized (not fleshed out) place.
The album comes from a progression that started at least as far back as OK Computer and more clearly audible as Radiohead began their shift away from their early rock sound. Opener “Traffic” could almost have come from that era, but it feels more developed, its glitchy sounds less the add-ons for a song and more the means of communication itself. Lyrically, Yorke goes to his comfortable places: dystopian vision, anti-wealth sentiments, and questions about the body. If Yorke has traveled here before, he knows it better now, and he (with producer Nigel Godrich’s editorial shaping) can more skillfully manipulate the audio around his vision.
That vision typically remains opaque, or at least translucent. On “Not the News,” Yorke understands empty space well enough to create a character with just a few notes. The vacuum in the middle of the news can be enervating, but there’s a spot in the middle where resistance and resigned compliance meet. Yorke sings at that intersection. It’s hard to know how to advance in Yorke’s world. As futuristic as his music can sounds, technology weighs more than it’s worth. A Luddite appears for “The Axe,” where Yorke, in a temperate speaking voice, attacks inarticulate machinery.
While much of Yorke’s writing worries over the future, the placid “Dawn Chorus” looks back. Yorke considers something lost – maybe time, maybe love – but seems unable to change. The sound of birds in the morning turns out to be nothing but “a bloody racket,” and despair creeps it. The bright tones of the track, though, suggest that maybe some sort of redemption or growth may be possible. If nothing else, Yorke suggests that the past has its own rewards, but the challenge of a second chance would be to experience those rewards with a more receptive mindset.
The album closes with “Impossible Knot” and “Runwayaway,” cuts that offer a little more brightness and energy (even with their ambiguous lyrics). By now Yorke has melded his breadth of musical influences. He could find a home at the club (though apparently not DJing), although his beats tend to run more toward headphones. That whole range comes together in “Twist,” a pairing of two distinct segments, the first of which is a movement with “just enough love to go ’round” before turning darker, the soundtrack to an independent horror film. Yorke lives in a troubled place, full of ambiguity. With ANIMA, his revelatory beats create a full spectrum, as unnerving as they are welcome.