A lot can be said of what happens when anything slightly “Radiohead” happens: Secrecy, suspicious codes, unusual formats and a maelstrom of press surround whatever the ‘thing’ is that drops into the public eye. I say ‘thing’ because with the release of their Polyfauna app and its recent updates, Yorke and the boys have proven that they can work outside regular parameters and still manage to make the world stand still in hopes for that long-await follow-up to the King of Limbs.
It comes as no surprise then, that the release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes followed a similar pattern: Pictures of a mysterious vinyl in press, lyric cuttings, and unexpected updates to the app. Then without any real notice; an announcement – a unique format and a sudden thrust into the public eye.
Cue reviewers, journalists, avid fans and everybody else panicking to be the first to get their grubby mitts on the world’s next modern classic.
These are the things we, as Radiohead fans (something that I very much consider myself), have come to expect. Yet obviously, it still is – last week I had no expectation that I was going to be sat listening to the sequel to 2006’s The Eraser than I was to be walking around in this unseasonably hot September weather in shorts and a vest.
Still, that being said; how does Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes compare to previous works?
Well, anyone waiting for a Radiohead follow-up, look away now.
This is very much a private party – the snap, crackle and pops of white noise; minimalist lyrics, a panoramic skyline of synths and muted drum patterns are all here. These are the things we’ve grown to associate with Yorke’s forays as a solo artist, or as lead creative in super-group Atoms for Peace.
The contorted warbling’s and skittish beat that lead into album opener ‘A Brain in a Bottle’ feel like both a step forwards and backwards: It feels like we’ve picked up straight-on from where The Eraser ended all those years ago. But, 8 years on, this is now territory well trampled by Yorke as an artist and it reflects through the quality of the track we’re welcomed with – terse vocal lines, partnered with succulent resonance and an unyielding iron-beat show that this is Yorke at his most confident.
This album follows the same vein. There’s a constant feeling of ecstasy and unease; peace and chaos blended at full speed for five minutes and served chilled.
This rings true to the splendid cut-and-paste epic ‘The Mother Lode’. Fueled off a jittering upbeat tempo so adored in our current electronic scene it comes as one, if not, the defining moment of Yorke’s solo career; perfectly paced and crafted with an elegance that befits an artist of this level. If this isn’t already mixed into Jamie XX and appears in about every Boiler Room performance in the next 18-months I’d be shocked.
With it’s simple Piano coda and trailing synth melodies ‘Guess Again!’ could stand as one of the most sombre affairs and I’m sure will be played in a reduced fashion at several shows (which I’m sure will be announced in no time, probably via Teletext in Morse code on a television set in Norwich).
‘Intermission’ appears at first to be a suitable companion to Hail to the Thief’s ‘Where I end and you begin’ but it soon becomes apparent that this is a beast more at peace with the world. It’s one of the rare moments where the content of the album’s lyrics really shine through; the perplexed thoughts of a man tired with modernity and our dependence on technologies (‘In the future we will change numbers and lose contact/in the future the leaves will turn brown when we want them/I don’t have the right to interfere’).
It seems strangely poignant then with an album so produced; so processed, so mechanically unnatural in its instrumentation, that Yorke’s voice is at moments singing free till it too; is cut, spliced and slathered in reverb, forming part of the wave.
The album seems to flow meticulously from one track to the next, ebbing in peaks and troughs: ‘Truth Ray’ with its deeply personal lyrics like ‘All my life is sin, sin, sin/ I won’t let go, I won’t let go’ slips the listener back into a seat of secluded contemplation.
But then the wave rises again and this time we’re left drifting in the manic seven-minute trip that is ‘There Is No Ice Left (For My Drink)’. Here we find the Radiohead front-man at his most experimental and for some, it might be a bit much, but others will find treasures from diving into this sea of electronic turmoil.
‘Pink Section’ eases us gently into the conclusion – more an interlude than a full track, the contorted piano melody that dominates grants some well needed space. Following a format shown from previous records (‘video Tape; Street Spirit; Motion Picture Soundtrack’ are all prime examples) we’re led by hand out of the humdrum with the blissful calm of ‘Nose Grows Some’. With its bright harmonies and beams of delicate synth leading the way, it almost provides a sense of everything being in its right place. But even still, unease prevails.
It’s a fantastic new effort, but as noted earlier; it’s something we’ve come to expect from the well-established genius of one of Britain’s biggest exports and I’m sure the world will rave for it and rightly so.
Even the release dynamic – this time a bit torrent file, is something we’ve come to grow accustomed to. Aimed at ‘Bypassing the self-elected gate keepers’ it is hoped that this will effectively provide an alternative to submitting to the super corporations’ iTunes, Spotify et al.
Will it work?
Well it most certainly will with Yorke and Co.
Reduced distribution and production costs mean that bit torrent will act as incredibly cheap alternative than purchasing the right to join the super masses. At a measly $6 (pure pittance in our Great British Pound), it seems like a win-win for all sides.
But then again, the little man isn’t known well enough to drop an album absolutely unannounced and cause an absolute shit-storm of publicity within the blink of an eye. It’s a fantastic outlet to continue on if you’re an established artist but it probably won’t grant many favours if you’re still left struggling in the undercurrent for some limelight. It’s more than likely that Yorke isn’t the first artist to release his work via torrents but he is almost certainly the biggest. Nevertheless, it will be interesting if the network grows.
So, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes comes as many things – it continues Yorke’s stature as a well-seasoned veteran in the world of electronica and does so gracefully. With its release, it offers to shed some light on an alternative process for releasing music to the masses.
Even still, anyone expecting a return to the guitar-dominated sounds of The Bends & OK Computer might be left feeling a little hollow, but with news that Radiohead have entered the studio to work on LP no. 9 announced earlier this month, it might not be too long till we hear just that.