FEATURE: The Light of the Dawn Chorus: The Wonder and Golden Voice of Thom Yorke



The Light of the Dawn Chorus


The Wonder and Golden Voice of Thom Yorke


THERE is so much to cover when we talk of Thom Yorke



but, rather than give you his entire career laid out – I will end with an ultimate Thom Yorke playlist, mind –, I wanted to highlight this incredible artist who is still turning heads. I will come to his Radiohead output and underline how it has changed my life but, just now, Yorke is promoting his album, ANIMA. He billed it as a Dystopian work but, actually, there is ample beauty and reward. It is not as dark as one might imagine and, instead, it is deep and full of nuance. You get hit by songs when you first hear them but something in your mind alerts you to a scent that you missed; compelled to return, you dive back in for another swim! The reviews for ANIMA have been largely positive. In fact, looking close, the reviews have been dazzling! The Telegraph, in their review, had this to say:

All that and you can dance to it. Opening song Traffic is a squidgy tour-de-force that layers Yorke’s "we’re all doomed" yelp over a rush of gothic grooves that will sweep you away even as it makes you feel very bothered about climate change. He’s in full prog mode, meanwhile, on Twist, seven minutes of processed despondency that builds into a swell of spiritual torment. That may sound like a slog – but Yorke’s melodic instincts glimmer through, even as the claustrophobia rises.

He bungs in the album’s wispiest, most optimistic tune, Dawn Chorus – the one with which Anderson closes the video – halfway through, as if to make it explicit the respite will be only temporary. There aren’t many surprises, it’s true. And those tempted to write Thom Yorke off as pop’s misery-guts-in-chief will find plenty of ammunition. The closest to a curve ball is right at the end on Runwayaway, as Yorke is shoved aside by a tumult of blues guitars.

“This is when you know,” he chants ,“who you your real friends are.” It’s bleakness on a stick. But Anima is also a dystopian rhapsody that will stay with you long after the moment and rates as one of the purest expressions yet of Yorke’s devastated world view”.

In this review from The Independent, they highlight the promotional techniques used prior to ANIMA’s release and how, on his solo outings, Yorke favours various shades of grey and black – with some light and optimism in the mix:

Commuters on the Tube in London were recently confronted by advertisements for ANIMA Technologies, a company claiming to have built a “Dream Camera“ that could capture the world of the unconscious. “Just call or text the number and we’ll get your dreams back,” it said. Callers were met by a rambling message about cease and desist orders, and an admission of “serious and flagrant unlawful activities”.

It was, perhaps, the most “Thom Yorke” way of promoting an album. On ANIMA, the Radiohead frontman's third solo record, he drifts like a spectre through a labyrinth, exploring his favourite themes of sleep, reality and the subconscious.

The tones here are stark and bleak, compared to the claustrophobia of 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. You can hear his paranoia in the stuttering techno opener “Traffic”, which channels the heady grooves and pulses of electronic artist Floating Points (who, with his neuroscience background, seems like an entirely fitting reference point)”.

I have been a fan of Thom Yorke’s since the earliest days of Radiohead and, decades after those early cuts, Yorke’s brilliance has not waned. He is able to tap into the vein of modern life and articulate a common feeling.

He can do that and not shy away from being explicit and honest but, tucked in every song is immense beauty and grace. I adore his music but, as a general guide and role model, Yorke is always relevant and brilliant. He recently unveiled all the demos and tracks from the OK Computer sessions after Radiohead were held to ransom by hackers. Yorke was not going to play ball and, rather than pay to have that music back, he just put it out into the world. Not only that but he asked people to buy the work and gave all proceeds to Extinction Rebellion – helping to fight climate change. Thom Yorke has been talking about his new album and why, in these tough times, discussing anxiety is a good thing:

The Radiohead frontman spoke with The Sunday Times in an interview about his new solo album, ANIMA, where he also spoke about his band, thoughts on current music, and ongoing social and political issues.

“It’s good that depression and anxiety are being talked about more,” he said. “But they’re also on the rise… [there’s] much less security about what may happen in the near future. Much less trust of institutions there to protect them, as well as wider issues like climate change. This all makes people anxious, and it’s crazy that people don’t just acknowledge that.”

“Am I such a sad f****** human being that I pour my dirt out like that? Maybe others do, I don’t. My lyrics are spasmodic, and I wish I could do storytelling, but I don’t know how. So I resort to what I do know, which is more about images, imagery, visuals”.

Not only is Yorke eye-opening when discussing anxiety, the modern world and climate change but he has a nifty and charming sense of humour – and, as this interview shows, he has his finger on the modern pulse:

“…My favourite Radiohead gig was when they headlined Reading Festival in 2009. “When we came on with Creep?” Yorke asks, laughing loudly about the hit they came to hate. Creep, though, segued into the space jazz of The National Anthem, from Kid A, and the crowd still sang along. The whole show felt like a victory lap for making millions from exploring ever more outré sounds.

“This will mess them up!” He smiles at the humour in the jarring of styles. But he is proud. “There’s never been a conscious decision to be like that. It’s just informed by everyone in Radiohead listening to different music, and I never understood why that’s a problem.”

Billie Eilish. “That was a fine moment,” he says, shaking his head. “We sat down and what’s-his-name — the guy who did the Bond film we didn’t do?” That would be Sam Smith, who sang the theme for Spectre when a Radiohead song was rejected. “That’s it. He stands behind us, and I’m sitting with my daughter, her friends and my girlfriend, when suddenly everyone goes, ‘Saaam!’” Yorke squeals his name. “I’m, like, ‘Aaaargh!’” Still, he liked the gig? “Yes. I like Billie Eilish. She’s doing her own thing. Nobody’s telling her what to do.”

I suggest you investigate ANIMA and listen to all Thom Yorke’s solo work. To me, though, his magic comes from the voice; the instrument that has scored some of the most memorable tracks of the past twenty-five-plus years. I discovered Radiohead when Pablo Honey arrived in 1993 and, whilst there were few songs that truly struck my imagination, I was captivated by Yorke’s voice. In 1993, I was listening to Nirvana and bands like that and I was not really used to a group whose lead had this combination of intensity and sublime beauty. Creep is a song that divides fans (and the band) but one could not help, when they first heard it, be bowled over and taken aback by this unique voice. The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997) is when I really got into the band and bonded with Thom Yorke. The Bends is one of my favourite albums ever and I just adore the songs. Every track has its own personality and, whilst the band are supreme throughout, it is the dexterity and power of Yorke’s voice that makes it. Consider the range he displays on The Bends or the exquisite sadness of Fake Plastic Trees; the electricity of Just and the haunting refrains of Street Spirit (Fade Out). Maybe, back in 1995, there were few singers showing sensitivity and emotions in quite the same way – Jeff Buckley released Grace in 1994 but there were not many like him around -; so it was no surprise that Radiohead resonated.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Jeoffrey Johnson

OK Computer followed and, in some ways, Yorke’s voice incorporated more shades, sides and suggestions. Paranoid Android is him sweeping between operatic, angered and soft whereas Exit Music (For a Film) is, I think, one of Radiohead’s most affecting songs. When we consider the greatest singers ever, Thom Yorke does not feature as high up lists as he should. In 2010, Rolling Stone declared Yorke the sixty-sixth best singer ever. This is what they had to say:

By the turn of the century, the broad, emotive sweep of Thom Yorke's voice had made him one of the most influential singers of his generation. His high, keening sound, often trembling on the edge of falsetto, was turning up on records by Coldplay, Travis, Muse, Elbow and numerous others. "I tried to sing like Thom Yorke," Coldplay's Chris Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Radiohead influence on us was plain to see." But Yorke himself "couldn't stand the sound of me anymore" — and went on to reinvent his voice beginning with 2000's Kid A. Using electronic trickery and exploiting what he called "the tension between what's human and what's coming from the machines," he changed his voice into a disembodied instrument; songs like "Everything in Its Right Place" sound like fragmented transmissions from some distant galaxy”.

Not only has Yorke inspired artists such as Coldplay and Matt Bellamy (Muse) but he ensured Radiohead’s songs reached as wide an audience as possible. In lesser hands, the band might not have translated and resonated as they did but, with a voice that cover so many different emotions and conveys so much, Yorke has managed to inspire and seduce the masses.

It is amazing hearing Yorke’s voice now (he is fifty) and realising it is as pure and stunning as it was back in the 1990s. By the time Kid A rolled around in 2000, Yorke was putting his voice into the machine more and that still remains the case to an extent. Albums such as Hail to the Thief (2003) and In Rainbows (2007) saw Yorke put his voice into the fore but, on solo albums such as The Eraser (2006), there is that combination of pure vocals and technology-fed voices, if you see what I mean. Whether Yorke’s voice is machine-processed or standing on its own, it is always exquisite and full of meaning. I do not think there are many singers alive today that can say so much with their voice. Radiohead are still going – let’s hope there is a new album soon… – but their latest album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, is, yet again, Yorke bringing something new from his voice. The mark of a great singer is someone who can shine in any genre and cover every theme. From the simpler Rock of early Radiohead to the jitter and electronic tones of A Moon Shaped Pool, Yorke is effortless and seamless; his voice always striking and evocative. A lot of fans prefer Radiohead’s OK Computer/Kid A period as the peak but, to me, one cannot easily define the band because every album they release is brilliant. I love Hail to the Thief and I think that it is much underrated; I also love Amnesiac (2001) and feel like it does not get the credit it deserves.

Thom Yorke’s voice is this constant strike shaft of light that fills the imagination and senses and makes the music – whether Radiohead’s or his own – so spellbinding. Yorke has also performed as part of the band, Atoms for Peace (alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (keyboards, synthesisers, guitars); drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M. and percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark), and has duetted with PJ Harvey (on This Mess We’re In on PJ Harvey’s album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in 2000) and Björk (on I've Seen It All for the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack of 2000). Every version and iteration of Thom Yorke is fantastic and, with a new solo album out, he is still blowing minds – the reviews for ANIMA are among the most positive and universally-adoring of his career. I love, as I said earlier, the fact that Yorke is quite cheeky and has this common touch. As you can see from this Stereogum article, he has a near-close encounter with Sam Smith – an artist who, I imagine, is not one of his favourites!

Yorke recently went to a gig by the pop star of the hour, Billie Eilish. “That was a fine moment,” he says, shaking his head. “We sat down and what’s-his-name — the guy who did the Bond film we didn’t do?” That would be Sam Smith, who sang the theme for Spectre when a Radiohead song was rejected. “That’s it. He stands behind us, and I’m sitting with my daughter, her friends and my girlfriend, when suddenly everyone goes, ‘Saaam!’” Yorke squeals his name. “I’m, like, ‘Aaaargh!’” Still, he liked the gig?

Anyone who is new to Thom Yorke, I would suggest you start at the beginning with Radiohead’s debut (Pablo Honey) and work your way forward. There are some who prefer the band and have not discovered Yorke’s solo cannon and, in that case, check out his albums because they are terrific. I have mentioned his voice and the sort of power it holds but there is much more to Yorke than the voice alone: a truly influential and inspiring artist at a time when we need direction and stability. Whether it is ANIMA’s boldness and stark beauty or the fact Yorke is a hugely likeable, intelligent and, as we can see, funny guy (he has thrown a bit of light shade the way of Muse but I kind of get the impression that is inevitable – Muse are heavily influenced by Radiohead so it is natural streaming logarithms would guide Yorke the way of Muse). Yorke and his bandmates thwarted hackers and have raised money to battle climate change; Yorke is always busy and you never quite know what he is going to do next. He composed the music for the Suspiria soundtrack last year and demonstrated a natural aptitude for film score/soundtrack – highlighting what I said about his adaptability and chameleon-like talent! I think Thom Yorke is one of the finest voices who has ever lived and it does not seem to be getting any dimmer with age – not that Yorke is that old! As the man throws some cheek the way of Sam Smith and Muse; with ANIMA in the world and claiming big reviews; with his voice, in music and in public, moving and compelling at every term, we are so lucky having an artist like Thom Yorke…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

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