There is a curious phenomenon surrounding antiheroes no matter how far back you go in history or literature. Some thrash violently against the pattern of their public make. Others take the bit of wrongful perception willingly into their mouths and use it as a guarantor of privacy, or an ironic shroud of protection against ever being found out to be golden. So many of them save the day, unsung or not. The literary archetypes would be characters like Robin Hood, Sirius Black, and Mr. Darcy. The historical ones might include Billy the Kid, Edward Snowden, and Steve Jobs. And then there is Thom Yorke. You really have not lived until you have danced with Thom Yorke on his birthday. Technically, it was the day before his 51st birthday on Sunday, October 6th at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, when several thousand of us enjoyed that privilege in tandem with the international ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ tour in support of his sirenic third solo album entitled Anima (QRO review). Onstage or otherwise public get-downs were not always within Thom Yorke’s immediate remit, as any sincere fan of Radiohead will know too well – but more on that in a moment.
Of all the incorruptible characteristics that define Mr. Yorke, perhaps the most alluring is that his powerful artistic contribution lies in him being the perennial supergrass of the subliminal. He is the rough sleeper who, to his enormous credit (and our endless benefit), turned tail and outright ran for the dark wood when comfort and its itinerant complacency swung wide their connubial doors on his life back in 1997 when Radiohead’s Ok Computer rocketed his clan of quiet Oxford types to a terrain of international super-band status few other genuinely literate bands have ever seen, and even fewer have survived. A fallible soul trapped inside an algorithm, Yorke has always straddled the sectarian line between being the renegade insurrectionist fighting our technofascist future and being the first alternative rock star to base nearly his entire approach on pushing the possibilities of computerization. Post the Brit-pop movement of the middle nineties, his kind of unstudied bon chic went the way of the buffalo everywhere else, and Radiohead became the marquee brand when it comes to recondite alternative music – though Yorke would likely hate that word. “Alternative to what?,” one can hear him snidely asking. He has always represented a sinister living warning against the triffid venom that would be modern technology, yet he is also the frontman of a band that made everything else digital at the time feel as prehistoric as teletype.
Yorke’s Möbius strip mettle forces him to resist this altruistic type of categorization openly, vehemently, and sometimes, in the proleptical days, even angrily. He was promptly punished for his early honesty in the press and thus just as fleetly took a page from Lou Reed and began to treat journalists like the Neanderthal bores many tend to be. Yorke cares not a fig to be accused of agape love for or by his listener, and nothing so pious as the common round was ever his explicit aim – so much the better for him and for us. By 1998’s paradoxical Meeting People is Easy documentary, he appeared physically pained by the very acclaim his band had toiled so slavishly to achieve. What makes all of this that much more difficult is that Radiohead has always, from that very first chunk of chest-crunching dead-note distortion preceding the chorus on “Creep”, existed in a hyperreal plane wherein dynamic electronic landscapes create maximal emotion. This is not just the ultimate irony, but the reason Radiohead songs feel like the Plymouth Rock of musical AI to this day. On these grounds and numberless others, Yorke and his bandmates continue to hold a sovereign and sanctified place in the hearts, memories, and minds of their fans no matter how much time goes by or where in the timeline someone entered the soundscape. But romantic involvements with Jedi never go well and a caustic tribalism sprang up around Radiohead, both inside and outside the music industry. So, the crushing conundrum became finding a way for a man who emphatically does not wish to be king but is king by rule of virtue to be king without tearing out of him all the things that made him fit to lead in the first place.
Anima sees Thom Yorke creating visual sculpture out of geometric guitar leads and inducing beats from his Kaoss Pad that sound like twigs snapping under foot to tidal rhythms. As with all things Yorke, it is dream theater, it is random but methodical, and it deals heavily in themes of skeptical de-fragmentation. Perhaps Yorke’s solo music could best be described as the brave everyman B-side to that rat poison anonymity which the digital revolution has afforded society’s weakest. Here, against the backdrop of ghoulish vitriol dripping from the lip of every apathetic avatar, is a real man, with a highly identifiable face that he is unafraid of showing, willing and stouthearted enough to present you with some very flesh-and-blood thoughts, dreams, feelings, and possibilities – all done in an anterior way that even the insensate droids can relate to. It cannot have been easy. There is a hale argument to be made that, despite irrepressible stardom, Radiohead effortlessly carries the title for remaining the most independent band in independent music history. At the height of their fame they were the first globally recognized band to pioneer the pay-what-you-want model for 2007’s fervid In Rainbows (QRO review). Though they have not released music as a cohesive unit since 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool (QRO review), some modicum of their presence shiftily infiltrates well nigh every original, of-the-moment piece of television and film currently occupying your obsessions, such as Peaky Blinders and The Goldfinch. Yorke completed the entirety of the soundtrack for Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 horror flick, on his own last year. Thom Yorke and Radiohead are everywhere and nowhere, subtle as stereo waves, just like always. The Atlanta show was closed with a gorgeously rawboned “Like Spinning Plates”, Yorke’s first solo rendering of this Amnesiac standard since 2010, and the audience became a hushed artillery square of adoration.
Rock stars have forever been socially encouraged to behave like the apex predators of the id. A man of muted maneuvers, Thom Yorke choked early and admirably on the innate cowardice of that paradigm, dueled nobly against its expectation for decades, and ultimately won by owning his unique apricity, so unlike anything the “creep” that made him famous could have believed possible in the Pablo Honey days. Unlike most rock gods of his standing, Yorke did not have to invent a gateway to the alter ego that would allow him to be what the money and the press said he was; he had the opposite (and far more laborious) task at hand – that of retuning his own attitude to accommodate how much of his real self he was to bring to the stage every night, and how to be okay with that pound of flesh. That conquest has clearly been accomplished now, no Ziggy Stardust or MacPhisto needed. He presents himself to the music far less like a misplaced messiah and much more with the eagerness of a hungry shoeshine boy. Yorke’s music has always been made in a head space where no one feels they can bear to stay for very long because of the intensity of emotion, but yet simultaneously everyone feels endlessly drawn to because being toe to toe with all the things that none of us can bring ourselves to say about ourselves is such a necessary place for everyone to be.
Yorke has finally learned to foster that vulnerable haven for himself as a creator in a non-destructive way that does not debase him anymore. The threshing machine of his mind seems now to automatically chuck the bits that were never worthy of deterring him anyway. In forestry terms he would always have been silvery understory, whereas most of his nineties contemporaries (Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, the Gallagher brothers) were variant forms of cacophonous canopy. Though grief has not exactly given way to gluttony, he is throwing his capelet over his shoulder these days rather than trying to hang himself with it, and that is a beautiful relief to behold. Despite the ways he may feel it cheapened him, his road to Damascus, as it were, saw him execute some of the more incredible musical flank movements in the recorded history of art. Vivid torrents of all types of sound, an orchestral warren of lyrics that would not be lyrics sung by anyone else, and the stalwart repudiation of repetition have established him long ago as the archrival of any aberrant labels or spineless sycophantic notions. He still has that deft sense of providence and not a little unintended civic heroism about him. Unerring, he never once capitulated, and Anima gives him the chance to show you what he can do once unencumbered by the meaning of his music to others.
Now, about that dancing. Mind you, this writer has attended a great many raves. I thought I was well-versed in the frequency range of supersonic bass. I was incontestably wrong and Thom Yorke used “The Clock” to school me on what I imagine it feels like to live inside a lit subwoofer. Everyone around was clutching their chests and throats during this psalm because the volume of the bass was so vast as to be almost visible to the human eye – suffice to say that my ribs were a half-inch from rattling together. Moving was made mandatory and even the seated people could be seen bending to the dialectic of the decibels. All of this is indicative of Yorke having undergone his own revolution since 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. The rough justice of whatever Radiohead unduly brought to his life has been reckoned with and he looks as if he is ready to slough off the celebrity slime, back-load the bad traits, and simply enjoy the sunshine. Though he is entirely too intellectual and intelligent a man to ever be fully un-pinioned from the predations of his own ponderous success, this tour shows the places we can all forever thank Michael Stipe, another wily dancer, for his concerted efforts in helping to keep Yorke here long enough for him to reach this peace point. Accompanied by Nigel Godrich, his longtime producer and trusted friend, and Tarik Barri, the visual artist responsible for the texturized constellations and graphics born of dead analog televisions you will see behind Yorke as he incongruously trips the light fantastic, he seems to have shoots of green bursting from his every pore. If, like your correspondent, you found him kingly and unparalleled in the grunge days when he was admittedly fragmented and broken, you are going to love seeing him unabridged and fulfilled. He is a convivial hitman now, here to fill the dance card you never knew you were holding.
The result of this fanciful reprisal is better than any of the dancing Thom Yorke GIFs that you have attached to every text since 2011’s “Lotus Flower”. Yorke is the King of Limbs on a whole different level at present. Convulsions and discos have been symbolic fodder associated with him ever since “Idioteque” married the drowning sequence in the “No Surprises” video to some Berlin version of Studio 54. During the performance of “Runwayaway” he managed to be both stately and unwieldy, quavering like a happy Fraggle in movements simultaneously bonkers and dagger-sharp. Yorke and company played a symmetrical set that encompassed not only songs from all three of the solo albums released under his own name but also “Amok” from his Atoms for Peace collaboration (QRO album review), and he danced with uninhibited abandon through all of this. Remember when Radiohead gave the slinking “Talk Show Host” to Baz Luhrmann for the soundtrack to the DiCaprio/Danes Romeo and Juliet? The main verse of that song is Yorke tauntingly enticing your worst/best adulations: “You want me? F*#kin’ well come and find me, I’m ready.” Never has he meant that lyric more than he seems to touring Anima, but this time the growl has been replaced with a grin and everybody is laughing at the same inside joke.
Thom Yorke is still not here to gift-wrap your insecurities for you, or smuggle your embossed moral lessons in the receptive freight of his mystifying music. Like all of the irrefutable icons in history or literature, and like all the true virtuosos, he still finds the recognition of his unrivaled talents a form of uncomfortable and slatternly idolatry. He distinctly does not want to be your Jesus. Your ideas of pop music pageantry and the bluffing expected of its patrons not only fail to interest him, he remains laudably and visibly repelled by them. Neither will the ornamental hedges of your admiration, pure or otherwise, amuse or cajole him. He is a dryad, not a despot, after all. However, if you are the sort of person who believes that art can save or alter a life – a unicorn coterie to which Yorke himself surely belongs – go see this master stroke of a tour for that reason, and to perhaps unofficially help Mr. Yorke haltingly accept (somewhere past the dark recesses of his own self-deprecation) that he is, at the very least, the subconscious semiconductor to an entire generation or three. With confirmed 2020 dates across North America, you should catch the ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ tour if you live for avant-garde music or simply dote on exotic beats. Go see it if you revere Radiohead, or even merely worship one of Radiohead’s imperative geniuses. Just remember when you do that Thom Yorke is, first and foremost, a student of silence, and if you want to thoroughly experience the strong room of his electronica dance party, keep the human swirl to a minimum but crank the serpentine shimmy up somewhere five or six notches north of Napoleon Dynamite-meets-Axl.