If you’re a Radiohead fan – or even someone with the most pedestrian understanding of Thom Yorke’s artistic ideals – it was a foregone conclusion that if we were ever going to see a follow-up to 2006’s celebrated solo debut The Eraser, it was never going to be by any conventional method. Here at Renowned For Sound, we weren’t even sent a bio, a press release, promo images or indeed anything we’d usually get before covering a record – just a mysterious email containing a single link asking us to use the controversial peer-to-peer downloading service BitTorrent to access what could’ve been one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes auspiciously dropped this week with virtually no fanfare (except a tantalizingly decontextualized teaser video on Radiohead’s social media outlets a few days ago) and sees Yorke re-enter solo mode after two more huge Radiohead records and a wildly successful side-project in Atoms For Peace, with his omnipresent producer Nigel Godrich faithfully in tow all the while.
Godrich and Yorke have managed to usurp what is traditionally the biggest headline in music news (The phrase “Radiohead begin work on new album” usually breaks the internet every 3 to 4 years) by casually dishing out a brand new 8-track set which not only picks up where The Eraser left off, but reminds us why Yorke is revered the world over as one of music’s greatest innovators. First track and lead single A Brain in a Bottle opens with some seasick bass-bloops that bloom into a sticky MPC groove, which in turn goes on to underscore that gorgeous, inimitable falsetto perfectly. Yorke famously stated around the time of his first solo effort that he’d much prefer to make music on a laptop than a guitar (pissing off an entire generation of The Bends fans in one fell swoop) and it seems that ethos has continued to pay off for the better part of the decade following.
Guess Again! dips its toe back into the Kid A/Amnesiac era of Yorke’s illustrious past with dark, ominous piano, an elusive metric pulse and the ever-beguiling detachment in his voice. The result is, as always, an adventure in sonic experimentalism that ends up sounding (whether by design or happy accident) like a post-apocalyptic imagining of the late-‘90s UK garage/2-Step scene. Interference flanks a disarmingly dry and soulful lead vocal with muted Rhodes, Brian Eno-esque synth beds and otherworldly “oohs” that tap into something intangible to which Yorke has always been privy, but many artists will never know.
The IDM glitch-beats of The Mother Lode dart and weave between side-chained piano and pitch-shifted vocal samples and Yorke’s beautifully incoherent lead vocal yet again to absolutely stunning effect before the dynamic mellotron swells and stark minimalist backbeat of Truth Ray. It’s by this point in the record that you’re as aware as ever that Thom Yorke’s voice is truly one of the finest instruments in music today. Its newfound pseudo-R&B soulfulness may have been something picked up by exchanging record collections with someone like Flea during his tenure in Atoms For Peace or it may have been there all along hiding behind the impenetrable enigmatic angst of Radiohead.
Not to infer for a second that Radiohead ever lacked “soul”, it’s just refreshing to hear Yorke’s fragility take even the minutest step towards a certain kind of accessibility. However the – and let’s use this word tentatively at most – “poppish” oeuvre is short-lived with There Is No Ice (For My Drink) gradually unfurling a slew of reversed vocal snippets and fluttering tape-loops over its 7-minute length like an ambient trance track before seamlessly transitioning into the similarly esoteric Pink Section. Its hissy, lo-fi aesthetic works a treat and gives way to the closer Nose Grows Some which brings everything back home with a steely comfort bolstered by programmed drums and a chord progression that is as reassuring as it is unpredictable.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has to be the most pleasant musical surprise of the year so far. Like an old friend who didn’t tell you they were in town until the night they flew in, the unexpectedness of its arrival makes it all the more special but like every release ever to bear Yorke’s name, there’s virtually no way it will grab you instantly. There are definitely moments that stick out as profoundly engaging, but as with every new Radiohead album, the first listen is spent scratching your head in disbelief thinking “What the hell have they done?!?!”. The second listen: “OK, I guess that’s pretty cool” and by the fourth or fifth, you somewhat begrudgingly accept that they’ve made yet another classic. It’s great to hear Thom be able to achieve the same on his own again with 8 more years cumulative experience than his debut.