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  1. Culture
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25 June 2019

How do you dance to the music of Thom Yorke?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

I’ve long been enthralled by watching Thom Yorke dance – whether it be in the mesmerising video for “Lotus Flower” from Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs or onstage under the blistering lights of a live show with his super-group Atoms For Peace.

And while I’ve looked on with awe at his ability to close his eyes, contort his body and judder along to his own electro-rock compositions, octopus-like, without seeming at all self-conscious, I’ve never found that same music easy to dance to. I feel awkward as sections chop and change, wondering where to place my limbs. Many of the things I love about listening to Yorke’s music – his willingness to be unexpected, to scatter the beat, to introduce a near squawk of a sound – are the things that hold my feet down. At a Radiohead gig, the crowd moves, but in no synchronised pattern: live, it’s even more difficult than on record to sense when the rhythm is about to veer off in another direction or stop altogether. Even when I’ve given in to a simple shoulder sway or two-step, I’ve been left feeling short-changed when the music suddenly switches up and my feet clumsily return to the floor, with no beat to follow.

But with Anima – Yorke’s third solo studio record, out on XL Recordings this Friday – I finally feel like I can dance alongside him. Following last year’s soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the classic horror film Suspiria (which itself is about dance – a dance company run by witches) and the debut of his first two classical compositions with the Minimalist Dream House ensemble this spring, Anima sees a return to Yorke’s trademark synth codes and glitches – except now I find myself easily swaying along.

Yorke is up and jumping from the opening song, “Traffic”. Much of this – the hovering anticipation of the bass, the crescendo of sharp clapping – wouldn’t feel out of place in an EDM club. Out on sticky dancefloors, club anthems rely on euphoria-driven rises and falls, inviting dancers to clamber over each other to reach the ceiling, in the hope of touching the joyous centre of each track. Yorke is more likely to be bathing in despair or anguish than out-and-out bliss, but he knows to play with the expectations of a drop: never quite giving in to the genre’s cliches, but still allowing his music to steadily reach breaking point.

It’s the same with the wobble bass of “Twist”. Yorke’s trademark falsetto rings out, dissonant over squirming synth-flute melodies. But whatever else is happening in the upper register, a rumbling momentum pushes the song along from underneath. If Yorke is at all interested in euphoria, he only offers us the briefest glimpse. Part way through the song, when the chords grow unsettled and the strings are searing, there’s a sense that Yorke is dancing around the melody; a fluid routine, slow as though swimming underwater. 

“The Axe” isn’t an obvious dance track. It takes a trance-like form, building slowly with burgeoning sirens. Intricately layered tracks fizz underneath Yorke’s vocal line, in which he demands a response from the silence: “I’m daring you to turn yourself on/I thought we had a deal”. It seems to be a warning of what to dance away from.

For some of these songs, I don’t have to imagine how Yorke would move to them – I can see for myself. To coincide with the album’s release, the musician stars in a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed one-reeler (also called Anima, released on Netflix on Friday). It is soundtracked by three songs from the album and sees his dancing take centre stage. I wouldn’t dare try to copy Yorke’s moves as though they are a music-video routine to memorise – but it feels good to see how he does it, what he thinks these songs demand of his body. 

It opens with Yorke sitting in a tube carriage, dancing in a frenzied, jittery way, head drooping then snapping up, as if he’s repeatedly waking from a nightmare. So are all the people who sit alongside him, filling the carriage, moving their heads up and down, up and down. This is different: I’m used to the spidery oddness of Yorke’s moves, but only when it’s his body making them. 

For all the glitching uncertainty of his music, Yorke is a man of grace. And no scene in Anima is more graceful than his dancing duet in the freedom of the fresh night air. His dance partner is his real-life girlfriend, the actor Dajana Roncione. At first she is one of his troupe of dancers – and then she is suddenly at the forefront with him, and then next to him, and then on his other side, as they playfully dance together, twisting and turning against a brick wall.

It’s a respectfully modest romantic encounter, and the first sense of romanticism we’ve seen from Yorke in a while. Radiohead fans will know of Yorke’s divorce from Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years and mother to their two children. The most recent Radiohead record, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, dealt with this break-up as a haunting cycle of love and loss in a devastating account of their relationship’s demise. Then, Owen died of cancer aged 48, just seven months after the album was released. Now, Yorke takes up a new dance partner, and smiles as they wind their way around each other. Both dancers’ movements remain faintly roboticised, as Yorke’s style demands, but slowly gain fluidity, as if some feeling of hope or compassion is loosening him up once more.

Anima isn’t an album of newfound happiness. It isn’t Yorke coming out the other side of fear and heartbreak – and musically, it isn’t a crazed wander into the unknown. The grainy entrapment of Yorke’s rendering of electronica is still there, and he’s still tweeting about his dismay over the state of British politics and the importance of recognising the climate crisis. But for once I watch him dance with a troupe, no more the lone figure hurtling himself around the stage while his bandmates cower over their instruments. It’s wondrous to see a whole legion of dancers take on Yorke’s spluttering movements and follow the lead of someone more used to moving alone. Yorke is dancing as part of a crowd – and I’ll be joining in.

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