Thom Yorke is talkin’ ‘bout a revolution again. Only this time, his soundtrack to it is so slight, it’s almost ethereal.
Yorke and producer-extraordinaire Nigel Godrich recently truth-bombed social media and the Internet-at-large with the unplanned release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, the Radiohead frontman’s first solo outing in some six years. “An experiment” tied to a virtual “shopfront” – a paygated bundle available online for $6 through the file-sharing site BitTorrent – the eight-song record and associated free content quickly ratcheted up one million downloads, not groundbreaking by Radiohead’s In Rainbow standards (or Beyonce standards, for that matter) but still worthy enough to register on the musical terrain’s seismograph.
But was the thing, which wasn’t a cakewalk for everyone to download, any good? Well, yes and no.
Though Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes clearly follows as a kind of extension to The Eraser, it lacks its predecessor’s heart and, at times, enveloping melancholy. Now, one of the charges you could level at Yorke is that he operates at a somewhat cooler temperature than the vast majority of his “rock” peers, especially when he’s separated from Jonny Greenwood and free to go down the musical-editing rabbit hole. Case in point: Amok. But even the Atoms For Peace record had a kind of super-group dynamism behind the bleeps and bloops. (I, for one, disagree with the assessment that it’s “forgettable.”) On Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke sounds like he’s broadcasting from the dark side of the moon.
Now, this isn’t to say the disc is a dud or an afterthought. The trip-hop beats of the single (and album-opening) “A Brain In A Bottle” balance well with Yorke’s filmy, sometimes-almost-wordless caterwaul and the accompanying, wavering synth-pulse. “Guess Again!,” with its white-washed pianos, calls to mind the genius of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.” And “Interference” and even “Truth Ray” are downright funereal, so phantom-soaked that they won’t be held below a headstone.
It’s the second half of the disc where Yorke loses touch, to a degree, with the heartbeat that separates his largely introverted version of IDM from the rest of what’s pumped out to the masses in volumes. The piano on “Pink Section,” which warbles as if recorded on twisted magnetic tape, is interesting but more wallpaper than anything else. “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” is too long, at 7:02, for dancing but not long enough to induce a trance – a missed opportunity.
Those who had difficulty downloading the bundle may have wondered if the $6 they Paypal’ed to Yorke really was help with studio time down-payment for the new Radiohead record, which the group is rumored to be recording. Touche. Those who have actually heard Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – aside from the Radiohead subscribers and completists, of which there are many – may be hoping the same thing. Yorke’s new record isn’t exit music for a film, so much as it’s interstitial music: transitional and a place-holder between greater moments.