When did Thom Yorke start having so much fun? For more than a decade, we knew him as rock’s greatest miserablist, the kind of guy who spends the whole party glaring at everyone while trying his hardest to disappear completely. But lately he’s been reborn – spinning rare hip-hop at fashionable West Coast clubs, growing out a long-hair-don’t-care ponytail and leading Radiohead ever closer to dance music you can actually dance to. Witnessing his loose-limbed shimmy across the stage on their most recent tour was sort of like watching Pinocchio become a real boy, then scarf down a fistful of MDMA.
Now, crowning this remarkable transformation, comes the warmest, grooviest album Yorke has ever made – nine songs where next-level laptop science collides with wild, funky improvisation. Its roots go back to late 2009, when the singer first rounded up the handful of L.A. pals that he later dubbed Atoms for Peace: longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on keyboards, top session drummer Joey Waronker, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Flea on bass. The new gang performed the songs from Yorke’s first solo disc, The Eraser, at a string of revelatory shows that fall and the following spring, giving the cerebral tunes an unexpected jolt into joyous physicality. But Yorke, who hates being predictable more than anything except maybe climate change, made us wait till now for an album.
It was worth it. One thing Amok makes very clear is that Atoms for Peace are a band, not just hired hands backing a star. The recording process began with three days of jamming in the studio, and you can hear those freewheeling origins in the juicy, spontaneous grooves that anchor the album. You can also hear the months of embellishing that came next, as Yorke and Godrich spliced, processed and overdubbed the initial jam tapes into a high-gloss psychedelic experience – an ultrahip DJ set for a warehouse rave on the moon. Surprises lurk around every corner of the miles-deep mix: bright flecks of West African guitar, chattering polyrhythms, synth swells that overwhelm the senses before fading away like last night’s dreams. Driving it all forward are Flea’s deftly looped bass lines, skipping from playful melody to rumbling menace as Yorke’s voice weaves merrily around the beat.
Not everything about Yorke has changed; many of his lyrics are as sour and cryptic as ever (“Thin persecutors and twisted vistas/A horned reptile that has crawled upon the earth,” from the luminous “Judge Jury and Executioner,” is a typical couplet). Even so, you can tell how much he’s enjoying moonlighting with Atoms by the sheer pleasure in his voice – check the coy falsetto he slips into for the weightless electro-R&B ballad “Ingenue,” or the blissful way he bounces through the syllables of the title phrase in “Stuck Together Pieces.” His vocals have a riffy, casual feel seldom found on Radiohead’s records. Even on 2011’s beat-heavy The King of Limbs, Yorke took himself far more seriously. For now, he’s living in the moment, getting lost in the rhythm, having a very good night.