For several months, I had been fishing through numerous headlines and stories about a rumored upcoming Radiohead album, one that I had already built myself up to be greater than any of the multiple classics they have already recorded.
So when I woke up on September 26th to multiple Pitchfork headlines and texts from my brother and friends about a surprise album release from my best buddy and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, I was both extremely surprised and slightly disappointed.
Disappointed in Radiohead’s last effort, The King of Lambs, I was anxious to hear what the legendary band could create in the second half of their careers. I was instantly excited, however, to hear what Thom, and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich could do on their own, in Thoms first solo album since 2006’s underrated debut, The Eraser.
The shenanigans that surrounded the way it was released, as a $6 download on BitTorrent, were way overblown, as people love to lose sleep talking about how inventive and imaginative Thom is in releasing his music, instead of actually talking about the music.
What we got to hear on “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” is a very “Thom Yorke” type album, which is not at all an insult in any way. Thom is a genius electronic producer, as well as a beautiful pianist with a peculiar, yet still gorgeous and trademarked singing voice. Even on Radiohead’s most “electronic” sounding albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, there was still plenty of “rock” type instrumentation, thanks to guitarist Jonny Greenwood and the rest of the band. That is completely gone here, as we get a slightly minimalistic sounding album, with the ever so lonely Thom Yorke, who in his 40’s, is already looking like what Willie Nelson will look when he’s around 100.
The album opens to a building, very interesting sound, with some classic Thom beats, as it builds to one of Tom’s best vocal performances on an album chock full of them. The beat is interesting and incredibly eerie, but it’s Thom’s incredible vocals that carry the song. The vocals on the song start to become layered throughout the middle, creating a classic Thom sound, and a layout that carries on the album.
On the second track, Guess Again, we get a very catchy, but repetitive drum beat that ends up not amounting to anything ridiculously special, but still an enjoyable track. This leads into one of the weaker moments of the album, in “Interference,” a very eerie song with a pretty instrumental, yet an uninteresting, repetitive melody and a weak vocal performance. It’s definitely the closest thing we’ve got to a pop song on this album, and it doesn’t amount to much.
However, I can forgive Thom for all of this since he followed this up with “The Mother Load,” which is by far the apex of the album. An incredible song, and arguably the best thing Thom has produced since 2007’s Radiohead classic, In Rainbows. I honestly think this is also one of his best singing performances in a long while, with an incredible build and gorgeous piano and melody that creates a strong contender for the best song of the year. This is followed by another great track, “Truth Ray,” where Thom uses his whispering, in your ear singing, that I did not enjoy on “Interference,” but found incredibly useful here, especially with the vocal repetitions in the back. Thom makes his best music when he really encapsulates you into a different world though his music. His music has always been about feel and ambience, and “Truth Ray” and “The Mother Load” really takes you into a different atmospheric feel.
I was incredibly excited for the next track, a 7 minute instrumental titled “There Is No Ice (For my Drink).” I loved the instrumentation on this album, and Thom has always created some interesting tracks in “Treefingers” that create a building atmospheric feel. However, the worst thing that could happen with this track happened. It’s the type of song that relies so much on building to something greater, even though it takes a boring idea and amounts to just a larger boring idea. You feel like this 7 minutes worth of ideas could have been compacted into a consistent, interesting 2 minutes.
That’s exactly what Thom pulls on the next track, “Pink Section,” a gorgeous and interesting 2 minutes packed with ideas. The album closes with a sad sounding, beautiful “Nose Grows Some,” which follows the blueprint of the other great song on this album, that ends the listen perfectly.
This is, like I said, a very “Thom Yorke” type of album, which is always a good thing. However, not all of his ideas always amount to what we all know they are capable of amounting to, frequently turning out as songs you say are “interesting” but not much more. However, Thom still creates some of the best songs he’s made in a while, amounting to a worthwhile, if slightly underwhelming listen.