It will be no secret to regular readers that I love Radiohead. I’ve been a fan since before The Bends and been with them all along their journey to the very different sounding band they have become. I hold Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood in very high esteem, and tend to love everything they do. Not always at first – as my review of The King of Limbs will attest – but it seems they know best, and I always end up in love with the music they produce.
Thom’s first solo album, Eraser, is a great album. But it also annoyed me a little as it sounded like the last album Radiohead had released; In Rainbows. What was the point in that? It might as well have just been another Radiohead album. Or the band should have taken a left-turn next, or something to differentiate the two. By the time Atoms for Peace came along with famous collaborators Flea (from RHCP) and Nigel Godrich (legendary producer) I wasn’t expecting anything special. Yet it was; from the first play I loved the album. The Atoms for Peace album is superb, and does in fact sound removed from the sound of Radiohead. But the atoms didn’t fall that far from the tree and the progression and connection is still obvious.
A few weeks ago Thom surprised the fan base by releasing his second (third?) solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a digital download package on BitTorrent. Always the one for new and innovative digital release mechanisms (take the pay what you want model of In Rainbows as an example) this appears as another experiment of sharing music with fans. The release was a success according to BitTorrent Inc. who announced that the bundle was downloaded more than 1 million times since its release. Admittedly the one million downloads are both the free and paid versions (the free version offers one single and accompanying video from the album, while the £8 paid version offers the entire album of eight songs, as well as the video for the single ‘A Brain In A Bottle’.)
What of the album itself? Well, it sounds exactly as you’d expect it to – to a point. There are no obvious guitars, the tracks are full of erratic drum-loops, piano and synth noise, and of course a lot of Thom’s voice, both sampled and directly. One of the complaints I levelled at Eraser was that there was a lot of soundscapes, and not a lot of obvious song-structure for many of the tracks. With Atoms for Peace this was corrected somewhat and now on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes there is even more of a song structure.
Take ‘Truth Ray’ as an example. A forlorn ballad that would have had 1994’s Thom Yorke on his own strumming an acoustic guitar. 1997’s Thom Yorke would still be strumming the guitar with some orchestral-style crescendo of organs building in the background. 2014’s Thom Yorke has the organs (in a fractured loop-style), and he’s lost his guitar. The common link between the three is that all interpretations would have been (and in the last example, are) superb. This is the genius of Thom Yorke (and Radiohead). Sure, they upset many fans after The Bends when they didn’t record “The Bends 2” but obviously they didn’t want to record that album.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is subdued, mellow, and an engaging album with eight tracks on it, lasting just shy of 40 minutes. I’m a fan of shorter, stronger albums than the trend of releasing 14 or 15 tracks just because the release format allows it. Some of the best albums in history are constrained by how much music the band could place on two sides of vinyl and this constraint served those albums well. On the latest Thom Yorke release, tracks like ‘A Brain In A Bottle’, ‘Interference’, and ‘Nose Grows Some’ are absolutely top-notch, although a few soundscape moments such as ‘Pink Section’ exist and if I’m honest the album would be no worse off for omitting.
Apparently Radiohead are back in the studio, and if this is the quality of music Thom is releasing on his own, I am salivating at what the full band could do next.