Thom Yorke performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on 4 July.  (Reuters)
Thom Yorke performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on 4 July. (Reuters)

The minstrel of majestic melancholy

  • Radiohead’s albums such as Pablo Honey established its lead singer Thom Yorke’s trademark credentials of gloomy angst, seasoned with self-loathing and despair
  • Yorke, who began his solo side projects in 2006, dropped his fourth solo album Anima in June along with a 15-minute film made by Paul Thomas Anderson

For many of Radiohead’s diehard fans, the trip actually began with their second album, The Bends (1995), and not with their debut album, Pablo Honey (1993). That’s not to say Pablo Honey wasn’t a good album. After all, it had Creep, the song that helped the band get noticed and attain mainstream success. But, in its entirety, Pablo Honey can sound derivative—mimicking Seattle-style early grunge at times and anthemic arena-ready guitar rock at other times.

It did, however, establish the Oxford-based band and its extraordinarily gifted singer Thom Yorke’s trademark credentials: gloomy angst, generously seasoned with self-loathing, despair and disturbed emotions. But it was with The Bends that Radiohead really came into their own: intricately textured layers of sounds, melancholy yet grand lyrics, and a complex soundscape that can be discovered and rediscovered with each subsequent listen.

From then onwards, Radiohead’s studio albums have always surprised fans with their unpredictable inventiveness. Their third album, OK Computer (1997), was a stripped-down yet tight and impactful guitar rock record; on their fourth, Kid A (2000), they surprised listeners by plunging headlong into electronica and producing an album that is the aural equivalent of a complex but deep and meaningful literary tome that could take several repeated listens to interpret fully.

Since then, Radiohead have put out five albums, each quite different from its predecessor but all of them essential milestones for listeners. Their most recent studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, came out in 2016 and had an understated, slowly pulsating soundscape against which Yorke sounds older, wiser and more knocked around by life’s vagaries.

Yorke began his solo side projects in 2006 with The Eraser, an album that sounds markedly different from much of Radiohead’s discography (with the exception perhaps of Kid A) because of its wholehearted embrace of electronica. Its automated beats and computer-generated aural layers could have put off Radiohead fans if it hadn’t had Yorke’s stellar, in-your-face vocals and producer Nigel Godrich’s expertise in arranging instruments. Yorke followed The Eraser with three other albums, including 2018’s Suspiria, which is actually the soundtrack to director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of a classic horror film, and Amok, an Afrobeat-influenced album that he recorded with a new band, Atoms for Peace, which included Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, Flea.

Late this June, Yorke dropped his fourth solo album, Anima, released along with a “one-reeler", a 15-minute film made by Paul Thomas Anderson (his notable films: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread). Yorke, who turned 50 last year, collaborates again with Godrich to produce an album that revisits the emotions of his younger days. Anima’s theme, of alienation and dystopia, recalls some of Radiohead’s older albums, notably the path-breaking electronic adventure on Kid A.

Anima’s songs are dark and fractured, with electronic club sounds meeting angst-ridden lyrics delivered by an intense Yorke who seems beset by exasperation and despair about himself and the world around him. Bleak? Yes. Gloriously bleak, as Yorke has always been. That attribute is—as all Radiohead fans know (and love)—what sets apart Yorke, Radiohead, and all his other projects.

The album’s title is borrowed from Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s definition of “the part of the psyche which is directed inwards, in touch with the subconscious" of a person. And the lore surrounding the concept of the album involves a long flight to Japan that Yorke is believed to have taken, one that left him severely jet-lagged and dreaming fitfully in a space somewhere between being awake and being sub-conscious.

Anima opens with Traffic, a sludgy, heavy-grooved, protozoan soundscape over which Yorke delivers his stream-of-consciousness lyrics: “I can’t breathe/I can’t breathe/ There’s no water/ There’s no water/ A drip feed/ Foie gras/ A brick wall/ A brick wall/ But you’re free." He occasionally yelps over the DJ-driven beat of the music but sounds sweetly melodic at other times. On Last I Heard (…He Was Circling The Drain), Yorke’s vocals and a harmonizing backing vocalist begin the song before it evolves into the generic style of 1980s house music, and then, before you know it, tonsof deep basslines emerge, changing everything.

On I Am A Very Rude Person, Yorke changes tack totally. There is a soaring choral harmony behind him as he softly sings verses of ominous lyrics: “I have to find my way in the dark (You don’t mean a thing, but it won’t bother me)/ I have to take a knife to your art (You don’t mean a thing, but it won’t bother me)."

Like many Radiohead and Yorke albums, Anima requires repeated listens. His fans will likely welcome the sound and lyrics of the nine songs, identifying and matching their own angst and despair with those on them and interpreting each song in a multitude of new ways as they listen to it on repeat—for that is the way Yorke is best appreciated. Yorke has the inexplicable ability to make misery so inviting that you can get hooked to feeling wretched.

On Anderson’s film with the same name (it was released on Netflix), which accompanies the album, and in which Yorke plays the central role, three of Anima’s songs are sequenced together with visuals that can be at once haunting, witty and uplifting.

But here’s the thing, the last but not least bit about the album. For all its bleakness, Anima is also a dance album. Dim the lights, put on the album and get your dancing shoes out. You will be surprised how your feet can respond to the sounds of majestic misery.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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