By 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.