To form a concrete opinion on a brand new Thom Yorke album in a single weekend—it sucks.
More than any other artist in music’s mainstream, his albums reward over the long-haul. Radiohead’s Kid A baffled many at its release only to top most decade-end best-of lists. In Rainbows went from being some free (or whatever you paid for it) file that—to me, at least—felt kind of disposable on release day. Now, it rests near the top of my favorite Radiohead releases. The King of Limbs—well, it’s 2014 and I’m not sure I have an opinion on The King of Limbs yet. Over beers, in music stores, on road trips, a certain percentage of us music fans have deconstructed Yorke’s work—his solo album, 2006’s The Eraser, Radiohead’s discography and his work with Atoms for Peace—more than we’d like to admit. So when the Radiohead frontman started sharing photos of a vinyl record last week, music fans buckled up and prepared for the wiggly songcrafter to dance his way back into our lives, whether it was through Radiohead, Atoms for Peace or his own solo work.
Without getting too much into the release itself—the partnership with BitTorrent, the “SURPRISE!” factor that Yorke is infamous for at this point—most of us weren’t expecting a follow-up to The Eraser. It’d been well-documented that Radiohead was set to go into the studio soon, and after In Rainbows’ surprise release in 2007, a new LP seemed as likely as anything else. And while anything from Radiohead would have been welcomed with open arms, I’m glad it was The Eraser that got its proper follow-up. The 2007 release was a claustrophobic, beautiful album with some unforgettable moments: The tear-summoning title track. The bottled tension that propels us to the understated climax on “Cymbal Rush.” “Harrowdown Hill” because—well, just listen to “Harrowdown Hill,” ya dingus!
The Eraser might have been the catalyst for Atoms for Peace’s formation—Yorke formed the band in 2010 to take the album on the road, all with help from longtime producer Nigel Godrich, bass godhead Flea and percussionist Joey Waronker. But the fleshed-out five-piece couldn’t possibly dial itself down enough to recreate the sterile tension of Yorke’s gorgeous solo debut. After all, if you have Flea in your band, you don’t send him off to a corner to drone along on analog synthesizers. That would be musical blasphemy in its highest form, punishable with a five-year sentence of listening to Metallica’s St. Anger on infinite repeat. But now, thanks to Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, we’ve got a second dose of that Eraser sound. And yes, it’s pretty fantastic.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes seem to be confined to one very broad one, much like The Eraser: Yorke’s laptop. And while the aural spectrum seems broader than his last solo release, it’s an album that relies more on the sonic landscape than the songs themselves. Don’t mistake that for a lack of quality, as there are some cuts that I truly love here. I just don’t see some of my favorites—”There is No Ice (For My Drink)” or “Guess Again!” or “Nose Grows Some”—standing as strong as say “The Eraser” or “Harrowdown Hill” when it’s just Yorke and a piano.
Much like The King of Limbs, Yorke’s melodic coos and whispers blend right into the background, mixing with his synth band—bassy, square keys on the low end, muted pianos and panned buzzsaw leads driving the songs forward. They’re minimalist, bare-bones songs all dressed up within Yorke’s laptop. Again, it’s concentrated Yorke: claustrophobic, eerie, curious, playful. And as always, really fucking beautiful.