Review: Thom Yorke, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

Thom Yorke's surprise-released new album is a minor marvel low on surprises.
Thom Yorke Tomorrows Modern Boxes

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptbakis >

Well, here it is. The mysterious white record Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich recently teased on Instagram is not a new Atoms for Peace LP, nor is it Radiohead’s ninth album (phew!). Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is instead a sequel to Yorke’s 2006 solo debutThe Eraser. This explains the general response to Friday’s announcement, a muted nice, rather than an ecstatic OMFG. I greeted the news with a far-less-generous ugh, having a good idea of what awaited me on BitTorrent: something in close proximity to The Eraser and AMOK’s hermetic and cerebral compositions. It would be a minor aural marvel, certainly. But actual surprise – not the thunderstruck delight Radiohead’s best works bring when first played, just anything to get excited about – would be in short supply. Sadly, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes more than meets these expectations.

Unlike U2’s now-infamous iTunes stunt, no one is getting worked up over a sudden Thom Yorke solo release, offered to the world on a popular file-sharing platform for a reasonably priced six bucks. A shrug cuts both ways, however. Though Songs of Innocence was met with a fierce backlash (way overblown for free music, in my opinion), it at least incited some reaction and started a conversation. I was genuinely interested in hearing the U2 album, not because I hoped for a masterwork, but because I didn’t know what this thing would be. (A pretty solid effort, it turns out.) (This, to be sure, is a minority opinion.) It’s hard to muster strong feelings for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, either way. I can’t imagine anyone actively hating it. After all, casual listeners probably won’t encounter it randomly in the wild – none of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ eight tracks will play on the radio, and it’s unlikely they’ll show up on streaming services. The album must be sought out and purchased, which implies, at the very least, a passing familiarity with Radiohead’s stranger digressions. Diehard fans of Yorke’s side-work are no doubt thrilled (rightly so, this record is terrific at being exactly what it was meant to be). I suspect everyone else is approaching Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a curio, a momentary stopgap to dip into until The King of Limbssuccessor finally arrives. In the long run, most of us will dust it off as often as we already do The Eraser and AMOK: here and there, if at all.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes offers countless examples of high-wire technique, with little emotional impact. Thom Yorke’s musical genius is undeniable. When unmoored from his equally brilliant bandmates, however, it provokes the vague awe mathematical proofs convey when quickly scribbled on a whiteboard. Most of these tracks aren’t songs, but intellectual exercises, bloodless and clinical. Despite its paper-thin sonics, The Eraser at least had melodies. AMOK replaced laptop blips with a recognizable human pulse (thanks to the inclusion of living and breathing musicians), and ended up being a more enjoyable experience with weaker material. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, a richer sounding album throughout, especially at its booming lower end, largely dispenses with both tune and swing. It instead seeks to dazzle the ears and stun the mind, leaving little for the body and heart.

Dazzle and stun it does. Over the course of a brisk 38-minute runtime, Yorke and Godrich’s many misshapen jigsaw pieces – wheezing electronic tones, rolling beats, coiling vocal samples, echoing piano notes – fall into their right place. Given a dearth of hooks, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes demands a decent set of headphones to appreciate its foremost asset, technical construction. This is especially true during the album’s latter half, which increasingly blends into dark sonic ether. “There is No Ice (for My Drink),” seven minutes of abstract paranoia, familiar territory for Yorke, at first feels like a parody of an Amnesiac outtake. With repeated listens, “There is No Ice” begins to hang together, thanks to its defined backbone, an incessant ostinato synth loop, around which countless fragments circle and then disintegrate. “Pink Section” follows as a splintered instrumental coda, before Yorke’s ghostly vocal returns on “Nose Grows Some,” to close the album with a reminder that there’s a man within this machine.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes prompts the same nagging frustration that accompanied Thom Yorke’s previous side projects. Yorke the composer is always on full display, while Yorke the singer is restrained, neutered, sidelined. His vocal instrument lacks the punch and flight regularly evident at his day job. So, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes disappoints most when it approximates ordinary song structures. “Guess Again!,” “The Mother Lode,” and “Truth Ray” move sideways when we want them to go up, up, up. The sedate opener “A Brain in a Bottle” was selected as the album’s lead single, presumably after consulting a dartboard. “Interference” is a piercing exception, an instance of splendor and heartbreak amidst the chill and murk. Yorke’s lyrics, for once completely audible, describe a relationship at a stalemate, with dissolution on the horizon: “We stare into each other’s eyes/ like jackdaws, like ravens,” he sighs, nearly comatose. “The ground may open up and swallow us/ in an instant, an instant.” It’s Yorke’s finest moment, not only on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, but his entire side catalog. “Interference” could, in fact, be a great Radiohead song. Funny how “great” and “song” still seem to rhyme with “Radiohead.”