The Critic: Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Thom-Yorke-Tomorrows-Modern-BoxesBy Spencer. As pissed as much of the American public seemed to be at getting a free U2 album dropped into their iTunes library by surprise, no one must be more pissed about it than Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. He had probably been planning the surprise release via BitTorrent of his new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, for weeks or months, and now a band as unhip as U2 is beating him to the punch? What’s more, I’m sorry to say that U2’s album is a thoroughly better piece of music—more adventurous and way more entertaining. By comparison, Yorke’s latest sounds stuffy, uninspired, and may I say, a little boring?

Obviously the method of release, following so closely upon the U2 stunt, is going to draw those comparisons—and maybe that’s unfair. But the bigger question floating over Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is how it compares with two other albums: Yorke’s first solo release, 2006’s The Eraser, and Radiohead’s last album, 2011’s The King Of Limbs. The Eraser was an oddly satisfying album, odd as it was at times. The mood was more impersonal than a Radiohead album, but the songs were pointed and rich with depth.

TKOL was Radiohead’s moderate take on dubstep, and while it had a couple of standout tracks (“Little By Little,” “Codex”), it might have been the first Radiohead album that could be called a disappointment. (Not in comparison with the music of their peers, mind you, but in comparison with the sky-high expectations we’ve come to have for Radiohead). To me, it was the first time I’ve felt that Radiohead failed to break new ground. It wasn’t so different from the electronic twitchiness of Kid A or Amnesiac, but it lacked the thematic coherence of the former or the intriguing diversity of the latter. With Radiohead reportedly beginning work on their next album this month, it’s natural to wonder whether Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a clue as to what direction the band might take next.

But I think we have to resist that temptation, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that Thom Yorke uses his solo and side projects (including last year’s Atoms For Peace release, Amok) as personal diversions from Radiohead, not companion pieces.

Like The Eraser, this new Yorke solo album is heavy on the synthesizers. But that album still brought in at least a few guitar elements on songs like “Black Swan” and “Harrowdown Hill.” And perhaps not coincidentally, those tracks were among the best the album had to offer. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, as its name might suggest, was built entirely on a laptop. And the challenge of going that route is that it’s easy to turn it into an entirely intellectual exercise and create robotic, meaningless music.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes feels distant, almost reclusive. The lyrics are mostly unintelligble, and the music pulses, drones, and trips all over the place. All of it is very … interesting. But when the first word that comes to mind is “interesting,” that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Take “The Mother Lode” or “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”—two aimless soundscapes full of random clicks and blips. These aren’t so much songs as something you’d hear in the background while picking out half-zip sweaters at Banana Republic. And “Truth Ray,” with its slow, throbbing atmosphere, starts with such potential—the underlying loop is admittedly pretty as hell—but goes nowhere for five straight minutes.

That’s the thing. Whenever Yorke teases you with the hope that he’s going to unleash some of his usual songwriting promise, he seems to purposely hold back. “Guess Again” starts with a piano progression that sounds recycled out of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” but never quite materializes into anything that cinematic. The album’s best moment is its first track, “A Brain In A Bottle,” which features a vocal line that flirts with old R&B. It’s a slick, head-bobbing track that briefly takes Yorke’s music in a direction we’ve never heard, though it too eventually gets bogged down in random weirdness.

Thom Yorke“A Brain In A Bottle”

I get why Thom Yorke likes to experiment with less structured sounds in his spare time. But this album was probably more fun to make than it is to listen to. That will all be fine and good so long as this creative itch is scratched for now. Better after all to indulge such impulses on a clear vanity project than on the next Radiohead release.

Still, if Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has any value as a listening experience, it’s in the chance it gives us to map out the boundaries of Thom Yorke’s genius vis-a-vis the rest of Radiohead. He’s an indispensable ingredient in that band’s ambition and unique aesthetic, but he’s best digested with the more moderating influence of his bandmates. Left to his own devices, Thom Yorke might be too much medicine and not enough sugar.

8 thoughts on “The Critic: Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

  1. I think your opinion of TMB might be more shaped by genre than anything else. You don’t really listen to electronica (right?), and this album strikes me as an ambient work (though I think that subgenre label is outdated, but I don’t know what replaced it). A lot of what you don’t like about it are the things that make it a really successful piece of electronic music. And all of this is to say, as with most electronic music for me these days, I don’t yet know how I feel about the album. I liked it instantly but I’m not sure it has sticking power for me.

  2. It’s not that I don’t listen to electronic music at all, but I do tend to be fairly selective about it. I think a lot of it is lazy in its songwriting (if that word even applies, as I’m not sure a lot of electronic artist even aspire to write “songs”). The worst of electronic music just lays down a beat, overlays it with some sounds that change every minute or so, and lets that carry on for five to ten minutes—with the result that nothing ever happens. There’s no build, no climax, no resolution. Just a vibe that carries on until the composer gets tired of it and moves on to the next one. And of course, with minimal lyrics (if there are any at all), the song doesn’t so much have meaning as reflect a chosen atmosphere. You’ll probably say that this is exactly the point. But I do think there are some electronic artists whose work really stands out for aspiring to something more than all that. They build in more changes, more structure—their songs go somewhere. I’m thinking of artists like Four Tet, Caribou, James Blake, Jon Hopkins, Daft Punk, Massive Attack, LCD Soundsystem. Or if you wanna go back further, DJ Shadow, Orbital, Underworld, The Prodigy, BT, Tricky, Faithless. (You might object to my categorization on some of these, but hopefully you see my broader point).

    To me, the more ambient songs on TMB just go nowhere. They just sort of happen for a while, and then they end. I’ve heard some Radiohead skeptics in the past accuse them of making emotionless music, and I think that criticism couldn’t be more off base. Even when they’re off in their weird Kid A place of sci-fi and computers, their songs are steeped in real feelings. But TMB is the first time I’ve heard anything from either Radiohead or Thom Yorke as a solo artist where I feel that’s not true. It feels like something he did to alleviate his own personal boredom.

  3. I certainly do disagree with some of your list (LCD Soundsystem in particular–they are the Talking Heads, not electronic artists), but mostly I think it reflects your bias and interests. You’re an old fashioned song guy with an appreciation for experimentation within the category. All of your examples of electronic music you like are people who I think purposefully blur the lines and try to make songs out of electronic music. A bunch of that is my favorite stuff too. But those are exceptional artists–not just in the way that they are the best (though they are that too) but in their musical goals. There’s an entire world of electronic music with none of that ambition or desire. It is about atmosphere and beat; it’s about “tracks,” not “songs.” And THAT is the actual heart of the electronic revolution. It’s cool if you’re not into it. I think I’m a half-step more into it than you are, and I have a friend who’s three steps deeper into it than me. Point is, I think judging TMB by “songs” is aesthetically unfair, though as personal taste it’s fair to say that you want “emotion” in your music and this (to your ears) does not seem to have it.

  4. Yeah, you’re mostly right about all of that. And I will get in a shot at those artists who don’t embrace a more structured approach by agreeing with you that they are indeed unexceptional. 🙂

    All kidding aside, though, I do think that the approach I’m advocating isn’t just a difference in taste; I think it’s objectively music of higher sophistication, in that the difficulty level is higher and the things it hopes to achieve are more complex. It too incorporates atmosphere and beat, but then it goes and does a lot of other things ON TOP of that. Which is to say, the electronic artists you speak of are aiming lower. That’s not to say they can’t make enjoyable music. I myself “enjoy” some pretty damn awful music from time to time (as I’m sure this blog has indicated by now)! But I do think it’s fair to also recognize that, when judging art in any kind of objective fashion (which I do think is possible to some extent), that brand of electronica doesn’t achieve the same quality of more sophisticated music.

    As for Thom Yorke, this is a guy who has always fallen within that “exceptional” category (both in terms of putting out music of exceptional quality and in terms of working, to date, in a more song-oriented format). The Eraser was very song-oriented—and few would argue that it wasn’t a superior album to TMB. So if I’m being critical of this work, the assumptions I’m bringing to it, in my defense, are historically warranted in comparison with his past work.

  5. For this album I think timing, mood and location are the keys to unlocking the mystery of this album. This past weekend I went to a bachelor party out in Joshua Tree. Once I hit the 10 freeway I put this on as the suburban Inland Empire slowly morphed into an expansive desert. I was completely sober yet taken on a weird trip as the music drove me further away from suburbia and deeper into the desert. The sun was melting the San Jacinto mountains an eerie rainbow sherbet color and the windmills continuously beckoned me further and further out. It is through this lens that I met Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and my trip was all the better for it. The next time I tried to listen to it was while driving four kids to school after a weekend of drinking and no sleep, let’s just say nothing was unlocked during that spin. I feel kind of like Antony, I loved it at first but I’m not sure if this will have staying power, time will tell. I can say any new Thom Yorke is a good thing in my book so I will continue to be stoked on his new releases.

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