Nearly seven years after Radiohead shocked the music industry with their surprise, pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, lead singer Thom Yorke has walked another unpaved route for his second solo LP Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, which arrived on September 26th in a similarly stunning fashion. After pouncing on the BitTorrent bundle like most Radiohead fans, here are our immediate thoughts on Yorke’s latest disc.
“A Brain in a Bottle”
From the throbbing, headphone-hopping opening notes, it’s clear that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will more likely resemble Yorke’s solo and Atoms for Peace work than his Radiohead output. Forget acoustic guitars, this is going to be Yorke and his laptop for the next 40 minutes. Yorke’s surprise new BitTorrent-delivered LP is a crash course on the sound he’s been developing for the past decade, from The Eraser to The King of Limbs to Atoms for Peace, but with enough new tricks and quality songs to get fans excited for whatever Radiohead is working on in the studio right now.
That sense of looking forward by looking back is found a minute and 45 seconds into “A Brain in a Bottle” as Yorke repurposes those springy notes that propelled Amok‘s climatic penultimate track “Reverse Running,” with the blips shooting back and forth like laser tag. The track itself seems to be informed by those paranoid sci-fi films of the Fifties, right down to the song title, like something you’d seen in a mad scientist’s laboratory, and a concoction of strange sound effects that Yorke Frankensteins into a dub symphony.
Anyone who updated their Polyfauna app last month should instantly recognize these metered, distorted beats and those eerie, melancholy piano chords that sound like they wandered off The King of Limbs‘ “Codex.” (In fact, every track on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes had cameos on the Polyfauna app.) While the app version just reduced Yorke’s falsetto into an ethereal echo, “Guess Again!” features actual vocals and typically stark lyrics from the Radiohead frontman. “Wild dogs are howling, behind the curtain,” Yorke sings with one eye looking over his shoulder. “I’m holding to my children, the creature’s staring in… I’m fighting in the darkness, the one who can’t be killed.” A brief flash of strings before Yorke tauntingly sings “Guess Again!” also provides Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes with one of its most organic moments.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘ mellowest track. “We stare into each other’s eyes, like jackals, like ravens. The ground may open up and swallow us in an instant,” Yorke coos on this quivering, meditative, Eraser-esque cut. Between “Guess Again!” and “The Mother Lode,” two of the stronger tracks in Yorke’s solo catalog, “Interference” is an opportunity to catch your breath.
“The Mother Lode”
Clocking in at six minutes, the centerpiece of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ first half finds a middle ground between the jittery “Stuck Together Pieces” off Amok, Yorke’s melodic early solo single “The Hollow Earth,” and the penetrating bass and glitchy pacing of The King of Limbs opener “Bloom.” At the three-minute mark, a surge of pixelated strings wash over the track, which culminates with some of the best harmonizing Yorke has displayed since In Rainbows seven years ago. Radiohead fans have been forced to confront with Yorke’s electronic impulses ever since Kid A arrived at the turn of the century, but it’s moments like “The Mother Lode” that makes Yorke’s six-string abandonment worth it.
This track kicks off like a deformed air raid alarm as vacillating synths and a simple – by Yorke’s current standards – beat steer this subdued cut that doubles as a pristine showcase for Yorke’s imitable voice. It’s also one of the more uplifting tracks in the Yorke catalogue, despite the singer’s pleas of “Don’t let go, don’t let go” and “Oh my God, oh my God. All my life is sin, sin, sin.” But the real star of “Truth Ray” is Radiohead’s longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich. The producer fills “Truth Ray” with simple, breathtaking flourishes that are reminiscent of his work on Beck’s The Information: Warm reverb, icy bells, and his incredible ability to pump blood into Yorke’s machine-borne music.
“There Is No Ice (for My Drink)”
Some fans might accuse Yorke’s new LP of being an Amok B-side dump or Yorke getting some of the IDM out of his system before buckling down to work with Radiohead again, but Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is closer in spirit and sound to Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser. For the most part, these tracks don’t sound like throwaway tracks or incentives to purchase Amok singles that didn’t arrive. That is, until we arrive on “There Is No Ice (for My Drink),” which is arguably one of the weaker – and definitely the worst titled – track in the entire Radiohead oeuvre.
The song will likely be categorized as a caricature of Yorke’s electronic works, and while it could pass for a solid TKOL RMX 1234567 remix, “There Is No Ice” unfortunately clocks in at just over seven minutes, making it the longest track Yorke has recorded since, remarkably, “Paranoid Android.” However, Radiohead fans that are nostalgic for Hail to the Thief era B-sides like “Where Bluebirds Fly” and “I Am Citizen Insane” or even The Eraser non-album tracks like “Iluvya” or “A Rat’s Nest” should enjoy Yorke at his most experimental.
The dreamiest, most ambient Polyfauna soundscape is here used as a wordless segue in the Radiohead tradition of “Treefingers,” “Hunting Bears” and “Feral.” Childlike chirping straight out of The King of Limbs and desolate, tape-decayed piano strokes are on full display at this weigh station between the overactive, overreaching “There Is No Ice (for My Drink)” and the album’s clear-cut highpoint…
“Nose Grows Some”
It’s somewhat ironic that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes arrives the same week that Aphex Twin dropped Syro, his first album in 13 years: Yorke has long been a champion and admirer of Richard D. James, who reshaped Radiohead’s entire musical trajectory following OK Computer. “Aphex [Twin] opened up another world that didn’t involve my fucking electric guitar, and I was just so jealous of that whole crew. They were off on their own planet,” Yorke said in a Dazed & Confused interview. “Nose Grows Some” is the closest Yorke has come to being in “that whole crew,” unifying Radiohead’s trademark sound with Aphex Twin’s forward-thinking electronic music. “Nose Grows Some” could pass for Yorke singing alongside one of the mellower tracks of Aphex’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92.
From “Street Spirit” to “The Tourist” to “Separator,” closing out an album has always been a strong suit for Yorke and Radiohead, and “Nose Grows Some” gorgeously continues that trend. Most importantly, this epic track is a beacon for Radiohead fans to rally behind and get excited as the band inches toward completing their much-anticipated ninth studio album.