Album Review: Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (XL)

Through a glass darkly

Thom Yorke’s second solo album was originally released in September, 2014 but only as a download on bandcamp. Now that he has decided to tour the material Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been released on CD and vinyl and will be streaming on the likes of Tidal and Spotify. The album didn’t receive universal praise on its release and unless music press tastes have taken a turn for the borderline avant garde this isn’t likely to change. It’s not a difficult album but it is unusually vague even by the less than clearcut standards of Yorke’s solo work and with Radiohead. The latter’s last album A Moon Shaped Pool has its fair share of ambient wash but the band provide a structure that is largely absent here. Instead you get soft focussed ethereal sound from unclear instruments of largely electronic but occasionally acoustic origin.

Yorke put the album together with the aid of longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and the two give the impression of emulating Eno and Bowie making Low, albeit without the guiding hand of a Toni Visconti character. The opener A Brain in a Bottle does have a song on it albeit you can’t hear all the words, but it was ever thus with Yorke, it makes you listen harder and that’s fine. Guess Again introduces some nice deep low notes and a real piano sounding largely as it should, but the production is what makes this and the rest of the album interesting, Godrich has been honing the art of manipulating sound in space on Radiohead albums and that side of things is a big factor here. I like the way he uses echo to produce a sense of space in what is otherwise a slightly claustrophobic mix.

The aptly titled Interference is a quiet, downtempo number about interfering with other people’s business, at least that’s the gist of it. Mother Lode brings in a dubstep drum line, I say line but that infers consistency and repetition, something that cannot be relied upon in this shapeshifting album. There are no explosions, nor much in the way of dynamic range but neither has anyone squashed the sound so you can turn it up without discomfort. The fuzziness grows on Truth Roy, it’s almost as if by softening the sound Yorke is doing his best to sound unlike Radiohead. There are mysterious organ sounds that could be analogue in origin and the beats are distinctly spare prior to an ending that’s enhanced by sparkly high bells. The next two numbers abandon songs altogether and depend on clipped beats and wilfully vague sonic meanderings to create an atmosphere that’s not exactly cuddly but neither is it all that avant garde. Yorke has always pushed boundaries, Radiohead were the first mainstream band to use sampling successfully, so it’s not surprising to hear a properly crunked up piano on Pink Section. He’s playing with tape to warp the tempo, something that others have done before but rarely does it result in something you’d want to listen to twice. Yorke’s skill is in using strange sounds to make music that while not obvious often gets under your skin over time.

The album ends on Nose Grows Some which returns to a more familiar form by his standards alongside plenty of static, but at least there is some semblance of light allowed out of the mix and you are left feeling hopeful for this particular tortured soul.

Jason Kennedy

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