Thom Yorke – Anima (4 stars)

Thom Yorke – Anima

The Radiohead leader wrestles with existence, love and the unconscious in an impressively weighty new collection

Once again, Thom Yorke proves that he's not using own work to escape the legacy of his main band. With his third solo record proper, it's clear he's on a quest to return to the dense, millennia-breaking experimentalism which Radiohead explored with Kid A (2000) and Amnesia (2001).

On Anima's cover image, atop the bold orange flare of its name and that of its creator, we see a greyed-out figure hurtling through the air towards a splash of speed-trailing skyscrapers hurtling up to meet them. The somnambulant impression of this charcoal-effect drawing evokes the dimly remembered dimensions of a dream. As the title suggests, this appears to be a record about the unconscious; more specifically – as Jung's theory of anima and animus suggests – it's concerned with the masculine male bearing a sense of the feminine within, something that might be unlocked to uncover a deeper sense of emotion through creativity.

At once, there's a gender-fluid currency and a sense of the timelessly personal to such ideas. These songs are gorgeous, contemplative explorations, whose claim to experimentalism is held largely in relation to Yorke's willingness to step away from the last hints of enforced formalism as demanded of his band. The beauty of this record, then – despite the familiar presence of regular Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich – is in its careful weighting of the balance away from what made Yorke famous in the first place. The ability of a master pop craftsperson is still evident, but in this case it's buried beneath an obsession with playful and wildly atmospheric textures.

The first track, 'Traffic', is built upon a sleek and pared-down approximation of a dubstep wobble, while house-handclaps float like electronic mist. Amid it all, Yorke declares his own lack of breath, with snippets of audible vocal revealing the words 'Kensington and Chelsea' and 'foie gras', a feverish cry for help and restored mental health amid a middle-class idyll.

'Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)' has a dulled, frosty electronic squall reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream. A quiet deluge of urban pressure leaves Yorke 'swimming through the gutter / swallowed up by the city', the living sound of anxiety and pangs of existential uncertainty after a restless night, possibly. Over it all, his voice sounds haunted. The soft ambient pitter-patter of 'Twist' washes over the listener with Yorke's vocal rich in tone while the climactic decisive power of piano chords and synth sweeps hinting at a gathering sense of composure.

For those listening closely to the lyrics, there's a sense that the concept of love is being addressed, albeit in a very freighted way. For example, 'Dawn Chorus' affirms that its narrator would repeat a course of action given a second chance, which marries well with the hypnotic keyboard pulse pulling the song along. In the past half-decade Yorke has separated from his long-term partner and mother of his children, then lost her to cancer and found new love; much of the sense of emotional weight and strange beauty carried by mature love and loss is evident here.

More than that, this is music in love with – or at least hyper-aware of – what it means to be alive, while an existential fear is tangible throughout. 'I thought we had a deal,' Yorke repeats over and over amid the shimmering, disco-smoke-flavoured pulse of 'The Axe', awaiting confirmation that old certainties need not be abandoned. 'Not the News' bears a menacing tone with its roots in trap, and 'Runwayaway' is a revelatory Aphex Twin-like ambient work. This is a mighty and wide-ranging emotional work, although it can only be approached on its own terms, and not vice versa. In other words, not every Radiohead fan might get it.

Thom Yorke: Anima is out now digitally on XL Recordings, and physically released on Fri 19 Jul.

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