Thom Yorke’s Beautiful New Nightmare

The subconscious is an overdone subject, but the Radiohead singer’s sleep-focused solo album, Anima, is packed with fresh, freaky ideas.

Thom Yorke and his partner, Dajana Roncione, perform with a phalanx of sleepy dancers in Paul Thomas Anderson's Netflix short for 'Anima.'
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 15-minute Netflix music video for the album is a hypnotic spectacle of modern dance in which phalanxes of sleepy folks on a commuter train nod and lurch in synchronization. (Darius Khondji / Netflix)

Thom Yorke’s new album is inspired by Carl Jung’s theories of the unconsciousness and by the way the brain processes the world in sleep, which is to say, simply, it’s about dreaming. A red flag, no? Heavy-handed TV sequences about dead characters and the postcardification of Salvador Dali’s melting watches have made art of the subconscious all too ordinary, and everyone knows that there’s little more boring than someone else describing their own dream—unless it involved you.

For Yorke, particularly, a 2019 album about dreams might appear redundant. As Radiohead’s singer and as a solo artist, his work always involves logic and visions that don’t work in the waking world. The theme can be seen in song titles alone: 1995’s “(Nice Dream),” 2003’s “Go to Sleep,” 2016’s “Daydreaming.” In lyrics, he’s “woke up sucking a lemon,” he’s mumbled “cut the kids in half,” and he’s fallen off a giant bird, which was a bed, which was, yes, a “long and vivid dream.”

Anima, however, is no retread. Just as some dreams might recur but most are ungodly innovations, Yorke’s third solo album refracts memories of his past work through a wild and unfamiliar thicket. It swings from brash and terrifying to delicate and gutting without ever becoming boring (this can’t be taken for granted after the insularity of Radiohead’s previous two albums). As with his previous solo albums, it lacks the songwriterly precision and oomph that defines Radiohead’s best stuff. But as with all Yorke’s music, Anima is worship-worthy when a certain, rational part of the brain is set to sleep mode.

The electronica odyssey that began with 2000’s Kid A enters a yet-more-advanced stage here, and the first minute of the opener, “Traffic,” offers a clinic in the way that the synthetic can contain universes. Server-farm hum and Morse-code crackle set a dreary, minimalist scene, but then the machinery starts to party. The dry, reverberating drums of U.K. garage smash in; a wub-wub-wub noise scans like a prison-yard floodlight; there’s a sense of reckless acceleration and accumulating chaos. It’s a glorious start to a DJ set, and the song has barely arrived. When Yorke finally sings, it’s a fraidy-cat whimper about being trapped. Then he squeals, “But you’re free!” The arrangement shudders, as if disturbed by his outburst. Paralysis versus escape, individual versus landscape—we’ve all had this dream, and now we may dance to it.

A lead singer in a popular band might be assumed to have, first, a melodic knack, but Yorke’s solo work has proved his worth as a sound sculptor, mastering texture and layers. “Last I Heard (… He Was Circling the Drain)” evokes some purple-green luminescent swamp, with keyboard chords blooming and dying and blooming again at a lazy pace. As he repeats one queasy phrase—“I woke up with a feeling that I just could not take”—the music pans across the ears, and the sensation really is like that of circling a drain. He switches to spoken word later in the song, at which point he might as well be breathing against your neck. “Humans the size of rats,” he says. Sleep well!

Those two opening songs delineate the offerings of the album: clamorous, unrelenting dance contraptions, and deeply affecting ASMR games. It’s best when both styles occur in the same song. “Twist” stutters at a shaking-Quaker pace as Yorke praises some loved one, and it’s actually sweet, if ephemeral-feeling. But then the song thickens up in its fourth minute with bleary, magisterial piano, and Yorke switches his vocal approach. The result is heavy, gorgeous psychedelia, and it could be described that way even if the refrain Yorke yowled didn’t turn out to be this: “It’s like wee—eee—eee—eeeeed!”

The hallowed end to that song feeds into “Dawn Chorus,” a stunner of spoken word and aching keyboard. The lyrics sent me back to the narrative shaping 2016’s utterly disconsolate A Moon Shaped Pool: the end of Yorke’s marriage followed by the death of the woman he’d been married to, Rachel Owen. Yorke’s poetry in “Dawn Chorus” heaves with regret, the hope for time travel, the futility of life, and the possibility of grace. “If you could do it all again / yeah without a second thought,” he says. Yet also: “If you could do it all again / big deal so what.” Even if speculating about Yorke’s own personal meanings is inevitable, the true intention of the words is incidental. A song this heartrending will be repurposed by each listener. (“Dawn Chorus” provides the sorta-happy ending to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 15-minute Netflix music video for the album, a hypnotic spectacle of modern dance in which phalanxes of sleepy folks on a commuter train nod and lurch in synchronization.)

The four songs discussed above make up the front half of the album, and the back portion doesn’t, so far in my listenings, match the opening sensory rush. But the the video-game bustle of “Not the News” does stand out for a string section that purrs like God’s own chainsaw. And on the last song, “Runwayaway,” Yorke’s dreamy approach gets its most aptly baffling treatment. A fan of Radiohead’s might hear the band’s weirdest work echoed: desolate “Hunting Bears” guitars, helium “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” vocal effects, the “Kid A” shuffle beat. Others will hear Led Zeppelin blurring into a possessed child’s lullaby that’s been given a club remix, stretching past six minutes, without the semblance of a verse-chorus structure. “This is when you know / Who your real friends are,” goes Yorke’s mantra, a prophecy for dreamtime, and for any artist’s uncompromising exploration of the great human mysteries.