It’s hard not to listen to Thom Yorke’s new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, without considering the extent of his long and rather celebrated career, especially with his output as the front man of Radiohead during the ’90’s and early 2000’s. That being said, with his last career highlight being Radiohead’s In Rainbows, released in 2007, Yorke’s recent releases have not matched the level of success of The Bends, OK Computer, or Kid A. King of Limbs, Radiohead’s last release back in 2011, was an eight-track-long disappointment. Besides problems with mixing the album’s instrumentation too low, the further incorporation of their dub and jungle-inspired electronic influences didn’t equate to consistently successful songwriting.
Amok, Thom Yorke’s debut of his side project Atoms For Peace, featured the same sound that Yorke had been developing, especially since his solo effort in 2006, The Eraser. However, it was a rather unbalanced and rambling effort, just held together thanks to Michael Balzary’s (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) bass playing.
So, how does Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes match up? Even though it was released as a surprise on Friday, does it still live up to the hype that Thom Yorke naturally generates with any release? It’s between a yes and a no. One thing is for certain: the sound Thom has cultivated from 2006 on is one of the most unique around and this album features his strongest songwriting consisting of this form since then. Additionally, you would be hard pressed to find another individual who started from Britpop and grunge music to the early ’90’s to then writing and producing material that incorporates contemporary bass, minimal house and techno, dub and jungle electronic music.
Thom Yorke is truly on his own planet, but both in a good and bad way. What sticks out the most with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is how Thom really didn’t take many risks with this release. This time around, Thom’s usual experimentation with song structure and instrumentation, especially with his voice, worked in a more cohesive manner. The first four tracks, “A Brain in A Bottle,” “Guess Again!,” “Interference” and “The Mother Lode,” show the best of Thom’s ability as a producer, songwriter and vocalist, all featuring a repetitive, yet dynamic, backing that builds over time, with each track doing it in its own respective ways.
This culminates with the track “The Mother Lode,” a Burial inspired drum beat and bass line that gets molded and shaped by Yorke’s elegant vocal riffs. However, despite those highs, this album has its fair shares of lows. The last half of the album features a more ambient side of Thom, which contrasts with the rather tight grooves of the first four songs. Still, this doesn’t work as well overall. “Truth Ray” overstays its welcome with its five minute running time; “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” and the subsequent drone track it leads into, “Pink Section,” lack the intensity and progression of the minimal house songs that it was inspired by.
Songs like “Milk” by Moderat off their second album back in 2013, II, come to mind as more successful efforts in that vein. Moreover, there is a homogeneity in terms of sound and feeling present within Thom Yorke’s material, both solo and with Radiohead, that does provide a slight feeling of blandness by virtue of listening to it all the way through. The only thing that truly differentiates Atoms for Peace material from Thom Yorke’s solo output is the presence of Flea’s bass playing. Considering the new material Radiohead played live on their last tour (“Identikit,” “Full Stop,” etc), Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sounds like what one would expect Radiohead to release right now, but without the full band.
The same could be and was said for 2006’s The Eraser. Love or hate Thom Yorke? Well, this album isn’t going to change your mind. But if anything, it’ll be a good way to pass the time as Radiohead heads back to the studio to record their follow-up to King of Limbs (if you haven’t fully lost hope). This album does provide a promising glimpse into the main songwriter of Radiohead’s musical process right now. Just the same, whether Thom learns and improves upon it, we’ll just have to wait and see.