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.