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Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

Posted on Monday, 29 September 2014 | No Comments

Open the boxoctosis.

To address the elephant in the room: even by the standard of latter-day Radiohead, the chatter generated by the surprise release of this second Thom Yorke solo album seems likely to overshadow discussion of the actual music. When an artist in such a uniquely priviledged position, having made their name during the flush industry years of the nineties and maintaining a massive, dedicated fanbase that has kept their records selling and the arenas full in the years since, takes aim at the "industry gatekeepers", it's worth briefly mulling on the implications.
The idea of monetising BitTorrent, one of the most popular items in the pirate's arsenal, and turning it into a tool for artists to actually sell their work is an interesting one (although one does wonder: hasn't anyone told him about Bandcamp?), and it's admirable to see Yorke continuing to explore new ways to package and distribute music and trying to make the most of their rare position by doing something more interesting than arriving by diktat a la U2. That said: bypassing the record companies is one thing, but bypassing actual record shops and fans without BitTorrent/not wishing to purchase a rather pricey vinyl record? In his efforts to find new ways to release music in the twenty-first century, Yorke does seem to be (likely inadvertently, but still) pissing off a lot of the indie stores and consumers that got him here in the first place. Like many of his political interventions over the years, the release of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes has been ambitious, well-intentioned, naive, potentially back-firing and more than a little perverse. Good to know some things don't change then...
Delivering a 'surprise!' with less build-up but also more low-key than the similar strategies used to announce In Rainbows and The King of Limbs - from the updated Polyfauna app to the vinyl teases on Twitter, it was clear something was afoot even in nobody knew what - the release of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes comes at an interesting juncture. Much as The Eraser, Yorke's solo debut, arrived a year before In Rainbows, this release comes at the start of studio sessions for Radiohead's next effort, currently scheduled for 2015. Like that album, it has the feel of a palette cleanser, a way of clearing up a songwriting back-log and exploring a more constrained, hermetic sound before returning to the larger canvas and group-led arrangements of the day job. But where The Eraser was still recognisably an albums of songs, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes is a far more slippery, elusive affair. Where his post-OK Computer songwriting has often been influenced by his love of electronic music and whichever producers he's listening to at the moment - the Warp Records roster on Kid A and Amnesiac, Caribou and Flying Lotus on The King of Limbs - this is the closest a Yorke release under any name has come to removing the singer-songwriter elements out of the equation and focusing purely on the producer side of his work.

If The Eraser felt like a post-script for the introversion and delicate paranoia of Radiohead's millennial work that also showed the first shoots of the passion and open-hearted emotion that fuelled In Rainbows, then perhaps (and this is very much dependent on whatever Radiohead are currently cooking up) Tomorrow's Modern Boxes could be seen as the conclusion to an informal trilogy including The King of Limbs and AMOK, a final cool-down and solemn farewell from this period in Yorke's work. If AMOK was an attempt to expand upon the frantic polyrhythms and dance textures of the first half of The King of Limbs that perhaps ended up swamping rather than aiding the material at hand resulting in a pleasurable yet somewhat hollow album (let the Endless Window records show), then here we find an automated take on the spectral ambience and subdued beauty of the back end of Limbs. While the acoustic instrumentation has been relegated firmly to the background - this might in fact be the first entirely guitar-free Yorke product - the record carries the same sense of solemnity and quiet dignity as the trio of Codex, Give Up the Ghost and Seperator.

This being a modern-day Thom Yorke album, there's the obligatory lead track that gives him the chance to do some weird moves in the video. Taking up the role this time is opener A Brain in a Bottle, taking a martial bass line and grimly marching beat and marrying it to a philosophical discussion of the perception of the self and whether we can accept the reality around us - so of course, we get a promo clip of Yorke boxing into the empty air, equal parts deeply pretentious and knowingly daft. The theme of how the self does (or doesn't) engage with the world dominates through the album, as on the brief but beautiful synth rumination Interference, which deals with the disengagement of the self from society in the digital age and, implicitly, with the refusal to engage with the great problems facing us, while centerpiece The Mother Lode concerns pure overload and the erosion of personal certainty over fragmented house and cascading falsettos, decay and psychic fragmentation made beautiful.

The weather-worn, minimalistic dance sounds of the record are, in effect, what is left behind when the digital age is left behind, what we are still able to perceive amongst the noise. It's no surprise that the deep, after-hours beats that rumble throughout There Is No Ice (For My Drink) sound so much like the work of Actress, who Yorke has long admired: more notable then is the ideological link between the two, that same post-Eliot fragments-stored-against-ruin take on dance music. Where Actress often seems to deal in a world drained of human touch though, this album deals with the attempt to regain human experience. After the ten-minute stretch wordless stretch of There Is No Ice (For My Drink) and the unsettling ambient interlude Pink Section, the album offers a crack of light amidst the digital gloom with Nose Grows Some, offering a cautious beauty and, by extension, a way back to ourselves and our own identity.

After the unsettled dualities of The King of Limbs and the apocalyptic funk of AMOK, with Tomorrow's Modern Boxes we arrive at a place of darkness where we confront what technology has brought us and done to us, and seal ourselves away until we can find some kind of closure. It's a strange record, one that uses modern technology in both sound and distribution so as to hold a mirror up to its most depletive consequences. Some listeners may be put off by the slightness of the arrangements and the chilly, minimal nature of the material, but for those willing to dig in, there's a depth, intelligence and an emotional impact to this record that far exceeds the more brash, extroverted AMOK. It's a reflection of where we are, how we got there and what could one day be, a musical and theoretical end-point that thus clears the way for a new story to begin. If this ends up a minor chapter in Yorke's work, it's no criticism of the album but instead a strange compliment. This is an album that feels designed for personal reflection more than mass consumption, succeeding on its modest mission far more than AMOK did on its grander scale, and ending up a far more rewarding listen as a result. If the file sharing required to get the album does have a purpose, maybe it's to instigate the reconnecting of social contact and removal of digital clutter that Tomorrow's Modern Boxes calls for.

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