Many people find Thom Yorke disturbing. And Thom Yorke seems to be one of them. On his excellent surprise solo album, The Eraser, he creeps himself out constantly, muttering about heartbreak amid waves of electronic keyboards. He doesn’t have the rest of Radiohead to buoy him up – it’s just a man and his laptop, with hardly any guitar. Yorke comes on as a Lieutenant Columbo of the psyche, rumpled and haggard, who always has just one more question. On The Eraser, he has some particularly barbed ones. “Are you only being nice because you want something?” he asks in the opening title tune. “Be careful how you respond/You might end up in this song.” Like the rest of the album, it’s intensely beautiful, yet it explores the kind of emotional turmoil that makes the angst of OK Computer or The Bends sound like kid stuff.
Yorke recorded The Eraser with Nigel Godrich and kept it a secret until Radiohead hit the road, so nobody would wonder if they were splitting up. The album could hardly sound more different from the superb new up tempo songs Radiohead are debuting on their current tour. Live, Radiohead are killing crowds with the Velvets-riffing “Arpeggi” and “Body-snatchers,” or the Run-DMC tribute “15 Step,” or the trimly rocked-out “Bangers ‘n’ Mash,” which is even cooler than the classic Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren duet of the same name. But The Eraser is full of glitchy electro ballads, in the style of Kid A tracks like “Morning Bell” and “How to Disappear Completely.” The structures are tighter than in Radiohead songs, centered on the vocals – fans hoping for ten-minute ambient dub doodles will be disappointed. Yorke’s voice has never sounded so fragile; his melodies have never sounded so mournful. In a word, he sounds alone. And it wears him out.
For the most part, these are sad love songs, maybe even breakup songs. They’re pretty straightforward in the lyrics department, detailing a crumbling relationship full of bruises that won’t heal. As Yorke puts it in “Black Swan,” “You cannot kick-start a dead horse/You just cross yourself and walk away.” Usually, when the word “you” comes up in a Radiohead song, it’s aimed at some faceless symbol of our sick society. But in knockout tunes like “Atoms for Peace,” “The Eraser” and “The Clock,” Yorke seems to address an individual, somebody with whom he shares a complex emotional history. There’s no percentage trying to read autobiography into Yorke’s songs, or anybody else’s – the question isn’t whether they’re about him, it’s whether they’re about you. So let’s just say he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. You might have to go back to Side Two of David Bowie’s Low to hear a guy delve so deep inside the well of synth-pop loneliness.
“And It Rained All Night” is a typical highlight – burbling synths, eerie percussion clicks, Eighties computer-game bleeps. And Yorke sings it exactly like Mick Jagger, which is weird. “The Eraser” has a broken stop-start piano sample, while Yorke vows, “The more you try to erase me/The more that I appear.” “Black Swan” has a growling guitar line and snarling vocals, reminiscent of “I Might Be Wrong.” But the peak is “Atoms for Peace,” where Matmos-like synth static crackles as Yorke tries to decide whether to save his lover from herself or save her from him. No doubt these would have made excellent Radiohead songs. The Eraser is full of moments when you wait for the band to kick in, and it doesn’t happen. It reminds you how much Radiohead thrive on their sense of collective creation – even at their most downbeat, their camaraderie gives off a life-affirming energy. Yet these aren’t Radiohead songs, or demos for Radiohead songs. They’re something different, something we haven’t heard before. Lieutenant Yorke is asking new questions, looking for clues to the same old mystery: how to appear, incompletely.