Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

Thom Yorke's new solo album has arrived at an opportune moment for me. I'm in the midst of re-listening to all my favourite Radiohead albums, prompted by the news that the band are back in the studio working on the follow-up to The King of Limbs. I've even gone back to Atoms For Peace's disappointing Amok in search of Yorke-related goodness. Surely I'm primed to lap up this new surprise release? 

Before I even heard any of the music, the first thing Yorke got right is the pricing. I'll happily pay $6 for the digital download of an album by an artist I like, even without hearing any pre-release singles. (I'm less enamoured with the BitTorrent process, but that's an aside.) As far as the music's concerned, although there are some worthwhile tracks, mostly found in the first half, the album is bogged down by the limitations of Yorke's solo musical explorations: glitchy beats and bloops, plus Yorke's inimitable whine, trapped like a ghost in the machine

Single and opener 'A Brain In A Bottle' is probably the most fully realised song, counterbalancing ominous bass throb and eerie synth melodies with shuffling beats and Yorke's vulnerable, periodically echoed voice. However, it's immediately followed by the less-than-inspired 'Guess Again!', where the insistently crunchy rhythm really grates over its run-time.

For me, the one true stunner on this album is track 3, 'Interference', perhaps because it's not cluttered with Yorke's busy beatwork. In under three minutes, he runs a warm bath of electric piano and synth tones, then breathes his lonely vocal through the steam. It's followed by the very different but equally strong 'The Mother Lode' (note the correct spelling of 'mother lode', Mastodon). Even though I instinctively wince at the bass bounce and Burial-esque drum sounds of this lengthy upbeat workout, there's no denying it's catchy.

In contrast, 'Truth Ray' is almost sublimely dreary, its excruciatingly foot-dragging tempo made even more leaden by Yorke's moan of "Oh my god, oh my god". It's almost unbearable, but that's probably the intended effect. Boxes' longest track, 'There Is No Ice (For My Drink)', is punctuated by irritating high tom hits and vocal manipulations, richocheting around with very little direction before seguing into the piano and tape warble of 'Pink Section'. Patience is rewarded by the plaintive finale, 'Nose Grows Some', which oozes with ethereal atmosphere.

What's most frustrating about this release is the feeling that the songs are underdeveloped. Sounds are mostly looped then left to run for the duration of each track, with little to no variation or manipulation. When you place this music next to something like Syro by Yorke's beloved Aphex Twin, it sounds especially crude. Nevertheless, as with most of the music Yorke produces, there's a definite something that draws me back repeatedly. The aesthetic may not be especially original or groundbreaking – or even consistently effective – but there's no doubting that his morose songcraft can prove hypnotic.  


  1. I enjoyed your comments, Mr Clarke. I myself haven't listened to the album but I am intruiged by your comments about Aphex Twin and the accusation of "under-development." Thom Yorke is a busy poster-post-industrialist. I feel like he likes to make a point at every level, including leaving songs a little under-done. He revels in the digital age, which I admire, still missing, as I do, a little more old fashioned gumption when it comes to sonicism.

  2. Thank you for your input, Mr Shaw. I agree that Mr Yorke is no doubt pointed in his treatment of these songs; their aching minimalism designed rather than a product of production or songwriting neglect. There's desolate beauty here, it's just rather hard to warm to.