The album, ANIMA, is available here:
27th June, 2019
THIS is a review…
PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Burbridge
where I am sort of looking back and to the current day at the same time. Whilst Thom Yorke’s album, ANIMA, has been out a few months now, there is a new song/video in the form of Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) – which gives me a chance to explore an album that I did not feature when it arrived. I will investigate that track in a minute but, before then, I have a few things to cover when it comes to Thom Yorke. I want to talk about artists who work in film and on soundtracks; those, like Yorke, who seem to improve with age and dealing with anxiety through music. I also want to mention music videos and how relevant they are in 2019; the value of music currently and a bit about the environment – quite a bit to pack in! I wanted to start off by exploring film soundtracks, because I am writing a feature at the moment that asks whether modern music is employing enough cinema; whether traits, sounds and tones of film soundtracks/scores are being utilised by today’s artists. Listen to the rich and varied music in film and I think a lot of it can be extrapolated and used by artists. Maybe that does not need to take the form of a sample; more like a case of artists being inspired by a particular sound and bringing that to music. I think film and music are linked and there is that close relationship. I do wonder, as artists like Thom Yorke show their chops in the film world, whether his contemporaries will follow suit. He composed for the 2018 soundtrack, Suspiria, and I think he has said that there are two halves of his career: life before Suspiria and life afterwards. That soundtrack sort of brings in some of the more experimental leanings of Radiohead around Kid A in 2000, but it is, essentially, Yorke stepping into a new world and being allowed that new freedom.
I think film composing allows musicians an opportunity to think in a different way; to take a different approach and they can then bring that into their regular work – I think working on Suspiria motivated a lot of what we hear on ANIMA. Although the two albums have their own tones, there is a big difference between Yorke’s Radiohead cannon and what he has produced on his own. I am mentioning film soundtracks and scores, because Yorke has contributed a song – that he worked on with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea -, Daily Battles, for Edward Norton’s new film, Motherless Brooklyn. Yorke recently performed the song live in the U.S. and, as he wraps up the touring for ANIMA, it makes me wonder what his next steps will be. I think he has a natural flair for film composing and bringing his music to a different audience. PJ Harvey has collaborated with Thom Yorke before – they duetted on Harvey’s 2000 album, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea -, and Harvey is no stranger when it comes to T.V. and film composition. On BBC Radio 6 Music’s Sound and Vision on Sunday, Harvey talks about Thom Yorke and his Suspiria work; how it is some of the best stuff he has ever come up with. I think it can be liberating and restorative for artists to move into film and T.V. because it makes them think bigger and in a less personal way. Maybe there is a visual stimulus you get from film that you do not get in music generally. I can see Thom Yorke, in years to come, working on film and T.V. scores full-time. He has a natural flair and I think he will inspire other artists to move into the medium. I do think the experience has working on various film soundtracks means he is refreshed and reinvigorated when it comes to plotting a new album. I have a feeling his work on Motherless Brooklyn will have some say on his upcoming work.
Let us move on, as I want to discuss something PJ Harvey said in that Sound and Vision show: Thom Yorke seems to improve with age! I am one of the biggest Radiohead fans around, and I would place their 1995 album, The Bends, in my top-three of all-time. Radiohead are always evolving and, for my money, are one of the best bands there has ever been. I think they have made leaps and seamlessly moved through different phases and stages. One cannot ignore their monumental contribution to music and what impact they have had on other artists. As a solo artist, it must have been intimidating for Yorke to release something without his bandmates. Yorke has not released that many solo albums – ANIMA is his third -, and his debut came out way back in 2006. The Eraser is a fantastic album that gained some glowing reviews; he bettered himself on 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, but ANIMA is his finest solo outing. If you count Suspiria as a true solo outing (rather than a soundtrack) then that means he has produced two masterful albums in two years. I am not sure whether it is his stage of life and event happening around him that have compelled him so; maybe Yorke has found this new vein and voice and he is on a very fruitful path. I cannot wait to see where he heads next and it goes to show that you can never predict artists and define them. I do think there will be other Radiohead albums, but Yorke seems to be in a very productive period on his own. I think his Suspiria album was a bit of an awakening and kick-started the next phase of his career. His solo work before that was great, but he really brought something different to the party on Suspiria. Suspiria – or Suspiria (Music for the Luca Guadagnino Film) – is a horror flick, so that instantly put him in a new world.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mamadi Doumbouya
He did not really deal much with horror tones in Radiohead (although OK Computer’s Climbing Up the Walls is eerie and intense), so that sparked something. ANIMA is not a horror-based album, yet it does have a dystopian edge and, perhaps, documents the horror and strains of modern-day Britain. There is no denying Yorke is growing stronger and stronger as a solo artist. It makes me excited for future work and where Yorke will go. I wonder, when Radiohead reconvene to the studio, if Yorke’s solo work will impact the band’s work – each member of Radiohead has been doing their own thing away from the band, so we might see a combination of all five and their individual works. I think we live in a time where there is still this immense stock placed on artists who are young and vibrant. Look at what is considered the most relevant and ‘best’ music, and there is this reliance on the trendy and hip. I feel artists tend to get overlooked when they reach a certain age. Although Thom Yorke is only just in his fifties, I do wonder whether many radio stations ignore his music because of his age; not realising that he is releasing some of the best work he has put his voice to. Maybe it is more common with women when we think of ageism, but there are many male artists who get confined to certain stations because they no longer fit a demographic. It is sad this is the case, and I would refer those who define artists by their age to Yorke and his peers; those who are doing sterling work. The young Pop elite might be favoured because they are cool, but musicians like Yorke are putting out work that is more compelling, richer and more memorable. Yorke seems to grow stronger, more inventive and interesting by age. I hope he continues to write and record for many years to come – the music world is so much better with him in it.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ettore Ferrari/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
I want to talk about anxiety because it is a subject that is being explored more and more in music. Listen to songs like Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) and there is are anxious tones and this edgy feeling. Yorke has said, when it comes to ANIMA, he wanted to create something that reflects modern life and, when you listen to the tracks, the anxiety and darker sounds do not make you feel bad. Instead, you are slightly lifted and there is this catharsis. Look at Yorke himself and the man behind the music. Yorke’s wife, Rachel, died in 2016 from cancer. It is obvious that loss had a profound effect on him. Not only has Yorke absorbed the anxiety and division around him, but he has had to face a lot of sadness and tragedy. One might assume this would make him retreat and produce something morbid. Instead, I think Yorke has used music as a way of making sense of things and realises that artists need to discuss anxiety and depression in their music. I will bring in an interview snippet where he mentions that but, before then, I want to source from an interview where Yorke has opened up about the loss of his wife. As NME report, Yorke spoke with The New Yorke Times and talked about the experience:
“Yorke said whilst it was difficult to focus in the immediate aftermath, making music with the support of his Radiohead bandmates helped him to avoid “paralysis” from grief.
Yorke explained: “It was difficult to work after what happened. God bless Nigel and the others for gently pushing me to keep working. If I’d stopped and lost my relationship to anything musical, I really would have lost my [expletive], because I’ve always had that cathartic thing with music.
“Even though in moments of high stress it’s very difficult to connect with music in that cathartic way, what I found was that you do connect. You end up being surprised by music. It catches you unawares. It’s true that you can go through traumatic emotions, and your emotions can become dulled. Your way that you relate to the world becomes difficult.
PHOTO CREDIT: Beeld Alex Lake
“You go into a sort of paralysis. But because I kept working, because I kept listening to music, I never felt that paralysis.”
Recently, Yorke also spoke about the grief he and his family faced during an emotional Desert Island Discs interview with Lauren Laverne.
When asked about being a father on his own, Yorke told Laverne: “I can’t hope to be their mum but we’re alright. I’m just really proud of them both. It stuns me most days. I can’t believe they’re anything to do with me. They’re just such great people”.
Whilst ANIMA does not explicitly refer to the loss of his wife, I think Yorke has managed to filter a lot of his feelings and thoughts into his work. I am one of those people who feels that, whilst it is valid talking about anxiety in music, are we living through a time where there is too much of it? By that, I mean is there an emotional balance? Do we have enough uplift in music, or are we resigned to the notion that all is lost? Yorke spoke with The Times earlier in the year and discussed the subject of sadness in music:
“However, I found a quote from a film-maker who said, ‘You know society is in trouble when it rejects sadness in art or music.’ That means it doesn’t want to see where it’s at any more. It is running away. So the more fear people have of expressing this side of what is going on musically, or through film or books, the worse off we will be.”
What is clear is that fans find solace in Yorke’s music. In a letter to one in 1996, he wrote: “The worst feeling is not thinking anybody else feels the same... I hope you are feeling OK today.” That sort of interaction has been a constant, so does he think his music actually makes people happy, rather than sad? “That’s another argument,” he says, nodding. “There’s a melancholy in my voice and some sounds we use, which means certain people hear us in a certain way. But I’m not bothered. I’ve never really got that myself.”
And what does Yorke do to alleviate anxiety? “Me?” he says, shocked, as if nobody ever asks. “Generally, really simple things. Running helps, and yoga is essential to me. Swimming. Physical stuff is really important. And reading a book!” He laughs, and I think of Fitter Happier from OK Computer. “I struggle if I can’t be making music.” Greenwood told me Yorke “devours” music. “It’s an essential part of me. I have to find new things to listen to all the time”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Burbridge
Thom Yorke has featured in some pretty memorable music videos through the year. I love Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out), Knives Out; Lotus Flower and Daydreaming; I think there is something magnetic about Yorke when he is on film. When ANIMA was released, it was accompanied by a fifteen-minute film – also titled ANIMA (or you can put it in lower-case if you prefer!) – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (he also directed Radiohead’s video for Daydreaming and has worked with bands like HAIM). In the film, (I am sourcing from Wikipedia here) Yorke is on a train of uniformed passengers (Not the News). He meets the eye of a woman (Dajana Roncione) and pursues her when she forgets her bag (Traffic). They meet in the street, dance together and board a tram (Dawn Chorus). It is clear Yorke has a very important attachment to the visual – maybe that circles back to his love of film and working in that medium. I do wonder whether the rise in technology means music videos are more or less important than they were. Look at the video for Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) and it sort of takes you back! The reason I prioritised reviewing Thom Yorke’s single over anything else was a chance to feature the video. It is an animated video and it sort of looks like something Fritz Lang would produce. It is grainy and black-and-white; there are greys and shadows; a series of figures moving on a street. We see an astronauts and aliens. It is a really memorable video and one that you could easily watch multiple times a day and not get bored of! I keep watching the video because it feels like its own entity. I think all great music videos should perfectly score the song, but they also need to work on their own and intrigue. There have been some great music videos released this year, but I feel a lot of artists are more concerned with streaming figures and do not necessarily put that much stock in videos.
Maybe it is the sheer cost or something else prohibiting explosion and incredible innovation. Maybe there are too many videos that we often miss the very best ones. I will always love the music video, and I think their place is crucial. I think so much of today’s music lacks a physical touch and does not have the ability to connect people. Music videos, years back, became conversation pieces. When music T.V. first came about, there was so much excitement and anticipation when a big video arrived. Often, the visuals themselves were as popular and talked-about as the song itself! There has been a change since platforms like YouTube came in, but I think videos are still really important. As I think about the link between film and music, videos seem to be the way to do that. Artists can give a song a new sense of belonging, life or belonging with a great video. Looking at the haunting shapes and scenes for the Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain), it is beguiling and immersive. Yorke, more than most artists out there, wants to create videos that stay in the mind. Just look at his ANIMA film, and you can feel how involved Yorke is and the fact he wants his music to go beyond the speakers. Not all artists have the same budget as Yorke, but I do think there is scope for most artists to produce videos that are pretty epic. I think one gets a whole new perspective on a song when they see a music video. You can listen on a streaming platform and feel one thing yet gain new insight and emotions when you watch the video. I will move in a second but, if you have not seen the video for Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain), maybe start there rather than streaming the song. I have been thinking, actually, about streaming music and whether artists can survive off of revenue from these sites.
PHOTO CREDIT: Nick Pickles/Getty Images
I will bring in part of another interview Yorke provided, where he talked about his dislike for streaming and how artists are not paid what they deserve. It is a contentious subject, but one wonders how much streaming services can afford to pay artists, considering so many of us stream music for free. I am a big advocate of people subscribing and paying a regular fee, rather than getting stuff for nothing. I do think artists need to be compensated, because they work hard, and their music should not be out there for free. In terms of music’s ‘value’, do we often get caught up in financial terminology rather than what the listener gets from the music. Yorke answered that question when he was interviewed by The New York Times :
“What we’re talking about is the ultimate value of music. How do you define that value beyond the most simplistic terms of what someone is willing to pay for it?
The value is in the way you encounter music. It was going to a record shop with someone who you think is cool and trying to be as cool as them while they talked about the latest Red Lorry Yellow Lorry record. It’s being around a friend’s house and putting on a record and talking about it with them. It’s having a girlfriend who’s constantly playing the Velvet Underground, and eventually you believe it’s great, too. The pleasure of discovering stuff like that is why music is so valuable. I guess we’re lucky that there are so many ways to discover music now, but at the same time I feel that “If you like this, you’ll love this” or “share this” is commodifying a deeply personal human experience between people. That experience is why music matters, because the experience stays with you forever”.
I should move on now and review Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain), as it is a remarkable song and one of the (many) jewels from ANIMA.
PHOTO CREDIT: Navad Kandar
With music composed alongside producer Nigel Godrich, Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) grabs you from the very start. Yorke said, concerning ANIMA’s themes, he wanted to explore dystopia and anxiety; a way of expressing these themes in a creative way. With odd pulse, frequencies and imagination, Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) begins with gentle-yet-brooding electronics that sounds space-like and alien. If you watch the video alongside the song, that description is apt – as there is an aerial shot of debris falling through the sky. Yorke has always been moved by dreams and what they represent. I am one of these people who knows dreams are the way for the unconscious mind to work out things it was unable to do during the day. Most of us have really random dreams, and I have never really bought into symbolism and dreams having hidden meanings. That said, I think Yorke’s study of dreams and sleep has been a big part of his music for many years – more pronounced over the past few years, I would say. With his voice almost still and asleep, there is something strangely tender and resigned when he sings “I woke up with a feeling I just could not take”. Yorke has multitracked his voice so that we have layers and the same line overlapping. It creates this semi-somnambulistic chorus that creates this state of flight, disorder and dreaming. When we get to the first verse, a lot of the background fades and Yorke’s voice is more in the fore; less dreamy and sterner. When singing “Taken out with the trash/Swimming through the gutter”, you get the feeling of this man intimidating by the rush of modern life and being squashed. As the verse continues, Yorke sings about being swallowed by the city where there are “Humans the size of rats”. In a place where opportunity cracks and opportunity, it seems, stutters, Yorke is navigating this rough terrain and bringing the listener with him.
PHOTO CREDIT: Killian Young
I love all the electronic stutters and buzzes as Yorke sings. You get the sense of a swarm of ants or a buzzing neon horizon. It is hard to place, but it adds so much atmosphere. This city life and busy rush is a feeling that Yorke cannot take. In one of the song’s most beautiful and emotional moments, Yorke delivers that line “I woke up with a feeling I just could not take”. It is this repeated thought and, when he sings, you believe every syllable and note. Almost as if Yorke was wrestling his stress and then fell asleep, the song transitions from the visions of chaos and crowds through to something that is more abstract or detached, perhaps. Yorke talks of “Walking in high heels” and “Breaking in your high heels”, which project two very different images! At once, you wonder what these lines refer to and whether this is Yorke in more romantic territory or letting his dream-busy mind take over. It is a wonderful twist from visions that stirred impressions of waking nightmares. Yorke, it seems, has tried hard to leave and break away. I am not certain whether he is referring to a relationship or holding on to memories; maybe he is trying to avoid the pressure of modern life but escaping into recollections. The more you listen to Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain), the more you look in different directions. The song’s title comes to mind and I wonder whether Yorke is referencing someone who is on their deathbed and not long for the world. Everyone will have their own interpretations, and I have looked at various interviews and can’t see anything where Yorke explains the lyrics and meaning. After a few spins, I have started to build a storyline and concept but, like all great songs, new angles occur from time to time. Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) is one of the best songs Thom Yorke has released as a solo artist. ANIMA is a fantastic album stuffed with treasure. I love the video for Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain) because it provides striking visuals that give you a feel of the song without giving away its real truth and secrets.
I didn’t get much time to discuss the environmental impact of touring earlier in this piece. Thom Yorke has been vocal about the environmental cost of touring for years now, and has addressed the fact that he flies and is contributing to that damage. Yorke is a keen supporter of Extinction Rebellion and cannot do too much when it comes to his carbon footprint and touring. It is hard to protest against climate change and, as someone who needs to fly, answer those who highlight the hypocrisy. Musicians have very little choice when they are travelling long distances, but I do think Yorke’s considered awareness of climate change and touring might change things in the industry regarding the number of dates an artist plays and how they travel. If you need to take a plane, think about playing as many dates as possible in a certain area rather than one or two and needlessly going back and forth. That being said, Yorke has some tour dates coming up, but he is among a band of artists who are doing all they can to highlight climate change and how we can all do our bit. I was eager to review a track from ANIMA and sort of missed out when the album arrived earlier in the year – I am not sure what I was reviewing, but now seemed like a good time to get on it, what with a new video out in the world! Make sure you check out Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain), as it is a wonderful song and comes with that utterly engrossing and unusual video. Go grab a copy of ANIMA, as it is one of this year’s strongest and most interesting records. On a side note: if you have not heard Thom Yorke’s Desert Island Discs episode from a few weeks back, then do check in with it, as he discusses his recent music and a lot of other cool stuff. There are a lot of great and inspiring artists in the world, but Thom Yorke is very much…
A master in this own league.
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