Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
Like Radiohead’s last few releases, the actuality of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Thom Yorke’s second solo album, is somewhat overshadowed by its unconventional release. Announced and dropped on the same day via BitTorrent, with only a few vague hints of a release in the preceding days, it almost seemed as if Yorke was intentionally passing off the record with as little hype as possible, burying it within the news of his main band being back in the studio. That assumption’s unfair to this record, which is much better than a tossed-off collection of experiments, but it also highlights Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as an unquestionably minor statement. The Eraser, his debut solo record, preceded this record by eight years, and that’s an album of similarly small-scale gems, a deliberate breather from the hullabaloo that surrounds a new Radiohead release. What’s exemplary about The Eraser is how it had emotional directness on its side, with Yorke’s imagery and delivery more intimate and forthright and, in the case of the terrified, urgent “Harrowdown Hill,” explicitly political.
Boxes, conversely, eludes that sort of easy analysis. It certainly sounds like a Thom Yorke record: the dour tone, the hop-skip rhythms, the layered drones and haunting (and haunted) vocals all make their way here in some form or another. Some critics (including me) considered Atoms For Peace’s record to essentially be Yorke’s follow-up to The Eraser, but Boxes really does feels more aligned with its predecessor. The difference is that Boxes showcases Yorke at his least song-oriented, which is both its greatest asset and its greatest liability. In the near-decade since The Eraser, Yorke has spent quite a lot of time in the electronic community, buddying up with Flying Lotus and Actress, calling on the likes of Four Tet and Mark Pritchard to remix Radiohead tracks, and all the while indulging his love of nimble rhythms with The King Of Limbs and Atoms For Peace. It follows, then, that he and producer/collaborator Nigel Godrich have become more versatile, confident DJs in the meantime. So confident, in fact, that Boxes plays as Yorke’s bid for credibility as a serious electronic artist.
Now, of course, electronics and all manner of synthesized effects have made up a great portion of Yorke’s music for over a decade, and he’s helped to cultivate an influential, distinct style of his own (so much so that “Radiohead-esque electronica” makes its way into reviews for other artists from time to time). Yet he also hasn’t made something like the nine-and-a-half minute house-n-glitch of “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” and “Pink Section,” which only feature his voice in chopped, intelligible snippets. (Unless I’m missing something, this is the longest stretch of any Yorke-related music to go instrumental on us.) And even on the more conventional tracks like “A Brain In A Bottle” and “Guess Again!,” he’s rarely eschewed conventional structure so readily throughout a whole record, letting it work entirely off the atmosphere. Much of it works. The music here, if not truly forward-thinking or unpredictable, is frequently attractive and well-crafted, finding a couple new wrinkles in his sound and, as always, using his voice as a counterpoint to the digital detritus that surrounds it. The piano pulse that underscores “The Mother Lode” is sleek and inventive; “Truth Ray”‘s quivering “Oh my God” refrain is surprisingly poignant, and the revelatory closer “Nose Grows Some” might be one Yorke’s most overtly gorgeous works ever.
The problem lies where Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes differs from The Eraser. This album may be more eclectic and sharply produced in some ways, but while the prettiness of the arrangements surface among repeated listens, there isn’t much else here to return to. Any of the intimacy and vitality of its predecessor is replaced by something that’s simply a great mood-setter, but not much more than that. Abstract and intermittently evocative it may be, Boxes doesn’t possess the originality or depth to get by without something more substantial to grab onto, which leaves it a finely sculpted, but not entirely compelling, curiosity. Weirdly, though not completely unsurprisingly, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes shares a similar vibe to Damon Albarn’s first solo record, Everyday Robots, released earlier in 2014—the aching melancholy, the reliance on elliptical structure, the looping tracks. And while both records have moments as beautiful as any of each artist’s best work, they also both feel like missed opportunities, precisely because they don’t dig deep enough to stick. The Eraser was a minor classic because it placed Yorke’s voice and songwriting in a more personal context. Here, we have what amounts to a master musician showing us what he’s been up to lately, and though there’s plenty here to marvel at, it feels more like the work of a hobbyist than an artist.
Atoms For Peace – Amok
At first glance, whether or not to call Amok Thom Yorke’s second solo album seems like a tough call. On one hand, he isn’t solo here at all; he has Atoms For Peace, a backing band of considerable pedigree: Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass, acclaimed drummer and frequent Beck collaborator Joey Waronker, session percussionist Mauro Refosco and, as always, producer Nigel Godrich. But even as this new blood gives this record a more organic, diverse feel than The Eraser, a few facts can’t be ignored. For one, Atoms For Peace only exists at all because Yorke assembled these musicians to play Eraser tracks on tour with him. Plus, the reprise of Stanley Donwood’s black-and-white cities-in-ruin artwork indicates this is a direct sequel to Yorke’s debut. And besides, the music here is still mostly in line with Yorke’s post-millennial work, where melancholy electronics and skewered beats reign supreme. So, essentially, there’s no escaping that Amok plays as a dressed-up Yorke album, no matter how tight and funky the rhythm section. But where The Eraser emphasized his voice, and his words largely eschewed abstraction for personal and political meditations, this album runs perpendicular, preferring sound and feel to structure and directness. The music is still based in atmospherics and repetition, but Amok was largely culled from jam sessions rather than pieced together on a laptop, so even the relatively structured singles like “Default” and “Judge, Jury and Executioner” have a loose feel to them. This playful, exploratory bent sees the band messing with different approaches, and, at times, it pays off: “Ingenue” plays with decaying synth lines; “Dropped” rides an odd, staccato keyboard riff, while the beginning of “Before Your Very Eyes…” feels like a fresher take on The King Of Limbs‘ groove-oriented first half. Unfortunately, Atoms For Peace never truly give themselves over to a jam, nor do they focus on song structure, leaving a few meandering moments, like “Stuck Together Pieces,” to fall uneasily between the two extremes. Additionally, the album’s commitment to downplaying Yorke’s vocals ends up sucking a good bit of the humanity from these tunes, so nothing here hooks you in like “Black Swan” or has the emotional resonance of “Harrowdown Hill.” Of course, being the master musicians these men are, there are no real missteps here either, and Amok is consistently listenable on the whole, even if there aren’t too many specific moments to return to.
Radiohead – Amnesiac
The long, tumultuous recording sessions for Kid A yielded many more songs than the ones that landed on that album. Seeking to avoid a double album, Radiohead decided instead to release another long player only months afterward. Because of this, this second album, Amnesiac, was often derided as “Kid B,” a collection of songs that didn’t fit on the original album because they simply weren’t good enough. While there is some truth in this—many of the more experimental tracks are clearly Kid A rejects—the album is far from an afterthought. In fact, many of the songs here that were left off Kid A for being (relatively) too conventional rank among Radiohead’s best. The haunting “Pyramid Song” finds transcendence amidst its ever-shifting time signatures; “You And Whose Army?” builds to a rousing finish, and “Knives Out” twists a melody from “Paranoid Android” into the closest thing to a pop song the band had done since OK Computer. Elsewhere, the bookending tracks “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” and “Life In A Glasshouse”—the former all clattering percussion and mumbled vocals, the latter an emotional jazz number featuring Humphrey Lyttelton and his band—capture Radiohead still pushing the boundaries of their music with excellent results. Still, the more electronic and formless tracks like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates” may sound good in the moment but feel a bit tossed off compared to the accomplished experiments of Kid A. It’s enough to make this one of Radiohead’s more unfocused albums, but the difference here is that even the lesser songs on Amnesiac are interesting enough to make this record more than worthwhile, showcasing the band at some of their most adventurous peaks and indulgent valleys.
Radiohead – Kid A
OK Computer was an immense critical and commercial success, causing Radiohead to be heralded as the heirs to the “world’s biggest rock band” title. All of this took the band by surprise, and during their following tour, the members of the band, especially Thom Yorke, became increasingly depressed and disillusioned with their fame and the attention. Naturally, the group retreated to the more difficult fringes of their sound on 2000’s Kid A. This ironically resulted in even greater commercial success, claiming Radiohead’s first #1 spot in America. This was, of course, unintentional—it was mainly due to a Napster album leak and built up hype after OK Computer—since Kid A was designed as a deliberately difficult record to challenge the expectations of Radiohead’s fans. This isn’t to say, however, that the album was a conscious attempt at commercial suicide. Rather, the album feels like a natural, even inevitable, transition from OK Computer‘s futuristic rock, albeit a rather extreme transition. From the moment “Everything In Its Right Place” sets in with its wash of otherworldly keyboards, it’s also quite apparent it’s not much of a rock album. Instead, Kid A is a largely electronic album, one that still feels like a Radiohead record, even when it sounds like nothing else. The band, rather than adding simple dance pulses or coffeehouse trip-hop, takes influence from more challenging forms of electronic music, something they had only flirted with previously. It never sounds forced, though, even when they incorporate elements of Krautrock and free jazz (“The National Anthem”) or ambient music (“Treefingers”). Assuredly, it is a demanding listen at first since nothing here follows any sort of conventional structure and Yorke’s lyrics are often cryptic, obscured, and fragmented. Yet, despite its alien qualities, the album is frequently emotional and beautiful as on the warped divorce song “Morning Bell;” the paranoid IDM of “Idioteque;” or the sad, ethereal folk of “How To Disappear Completely.” Plus, even though there really isn’t anything on here that can be considered a hook (except for, perhaps, the refrain to “Optimistic”), the music, once it sinks in, is just as memorable as any pop song, a testament to the album’s—and the band’s—success. Kid A may not be as immediate as some of their other work, but a patient ear reveals the album to be possibly their most rewarding.
Radiohead – The Bends
If Pablo Honey hinted at Radiohead’s cerebral, cathartic sound, then The Bends was the breakthrough, a quantum leap forward for the band in terms of composition and songwriting. The band synthesizes a multitude of influences ranging from R.E.M. and Pixies to The Smiths and My Bloody Valentine into something new, creating sweeping anthems of despair and alienation. But compared to the sullen, paranoid roads the band would later travel, The Bends feels bright and alive, even if Thom Yorke’s lyric sheet would state otherwise. The trick is that even when the music takes left turns, it always lands on a strong, focused melody, making the band’s envelope-pushing experiments seem exciting rather than ponderous. “Just” and “My Iron Lung” are muscular rockers that display the band’s more visceral side, even when the songs explore unconventional structures. Meanwhile, the haunting “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is memorizing and dark, riding Ed O’Brien’s instantly memorable guitar riff. Yorke’s lyrics also considerably developed, providing social commentary while becoming more cryptic and memorable. This is seen most notably on the album’s biggest stand out, “Fake Plastic Trees,” a sparse, melancholy acoustic track that bubbles over into an exciting, cathartic blowout. Though the band would continue to refine and innovate, The Bends stands as Radiohead’s first real demonstration of their talent and remains a classic of alternative rock.
Radiohead – Pablo Honey
Eternally thought of as “the album with ‘Creep’ on it”, Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, is indeed the least remarkable record in the band’s oeuvre, but it’s also unjustly maligned in the grand scheme of the group’s legacy and has its fair share of memorable moments. At this point, Radiohead haven’t mastered the ability to make their textured guitars sound distinctive yet, so the album is at its best when it delivers angst-filled anthems, the group’s true forte this early in their career. “Stop Whispering” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” are quite good, both sweetly melodic and forceful at the same time, qualities that the band would later expand on The Bends. The dreamy (then chaotic) album closer “Blow Out” is just about the only place the band mixes things up to great effect. Then there is, of course, “Creep,” which, despite its overexposure, is still a rather fine song: a moody, grungy rocker punctuated by Jonny Greenwood’s exclamatory slams of feedback. Still, much of the latter half of the album is somewhat generic, and Thom Yorke is still in the very early stages of his lyrical development, often reciting self-deprecating tropes that fail to leave an impression. Though the band’s basic sound is outlined on Pablo Honey, there are few signs of the directions Radiohead would later take in their career.
Radiohead – OK Computer
A key album of the 1990s, Radiohead’s OK Computer is something of a miracle: a truly complex, experimental rock album that was appreciated by the masses upon its release. Of course, this is mainly because the band tucks all of its unconventional time signatures, complicated syncopations, and electronic and instrumental hip-hop influences below the surface, unveiling new layers and hidden elements with each listen. But if it were just a clump of easily-digestible experimentation, the album wouldn’t have achieved the acclaim or influence it did. Instead, OK Computer merged these innovations with some of Radiohead’s most memorable and evocative work yet, including the multi-segmented “Paranoid Android,” the painfully resigned “No Surprises,” and the cathartic pop of “Let Down.” Massively influential upon its release, OK Computer‘s sweeping melancholy put a definitive end to the declining Britpop movement, galvanizing a new wave of British (and American) alternative bands who also traded in falsetto-sung alienation, albeit in a much more radio-friendly way.