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o-THOM-YORKE-570

by Ryan Nichols

It was thrilling- weeks after news that Radiohead were indeed back in the studio working on their ninth full length, ringleader Thom Yorke threw another album onto the internet. I don’t need to cover the release method for you; by now you likely remember the world-changing moment of the ‘In Rainbows’ release in 2007, the surprise “THANK YOU FOR WAITING” for 2011’s King of Limbs, and the other seemingly random ways the band has distributed their music to the world (“These Are My Twisted Words” via private torrent trackers being my favorite). Yorke’s latest release, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ (go ahead, say the title aloud) was all the more impressive, and not because of its own release method. Coming just a year after Atoms for Peace’s extremely undercooked debut album (which I’m convinced Yorke and Nigel Godrich created solely themselves), and with no prior warning – aside from one photo that revealed almost nothing – it’s a lot more impressive without a wild release method or any fanfare of waiting for the record.

You may notice the similarities to ‘The King of Limbs’ before you even play the record. The style of Stanley Donwood’s art and the number of tracks and runtime (eight, less than 40 minutes) give a familiar feel. The beauty of this record is that it occupies the space of ‘The King of Limbs,’ which was the breakthrough moment when Radiohead realized they didn’t have to make the grandest album in the universe every time. Instead, they crafted a much more personal and captivating atmosphere as opposed to the sad balladry of ‘OK Computer,’ the landscape-changing appeal of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac,’ the grandiose of ‘Hail to the Thief,’ and the elder, more personal nature of ‘In Rainbows.’ ‘The King of Limbs’ felt like a band at a strong comfort level, and ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ sees their leader expand and improve on it. It would be wrong to not pair the two albums together, as they absolutely feel like companions (moreso than ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ did, and those were recorded in the same sessions), and could easily play together. ‘Boxes’ yields almost no similarities to Yorke’s previous 2006 solo debut ‘The Eraser,’ a lovely though dated – especially in its middle sections – album. It exists in a new place, one I’d like to see Radiohead continue with in the future.

Opener “A Brain in a Bottle” has the same static propulsion you’d see from Amok’s “Default”, but it carries a weight that song failed to ever capture on record. It continues the sci-fi, interplanetary theme from the record’s cover with synths that sound like ray guns and the low rumble of a spacecraft. It was released as the single for ‘Boxes,’ and lacking any acoustic instrument (unless I’m missing something), it works well as the leadoff and statement of intent declaring that we have a record that doesn’t quite sound like it’s from planet earth. To counter this, “Guess Again!” opens with piano, an instrument Yorke has based a lot of his solo career around (“Analyze”, “Cymbal Rush”), and is used wonderfully on both this song and “The Mother Lode”, unsurprisingly the two tracks the vast majority of the “we want the old” side of the Radiohead fanbase have praised the most. The lyrics are a vivid portrayal of a nightmare, interestingly delivered with the lower register snarl you’d see on an older song like ‘The Eraser’s “Black Swan”, rather than ‘Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song”, which the song somewhat correlates to. I wish Yorke would sing in the lower tones more; even as he ages he can still skillfully nail the higher notes, but his lower tones (which he did used absurdly well on Flying Lotus’ “Electric Candyman”) always come across as really impressive to me. The aforementioned song, “The Mother Lode,” is frantic, its grooves and repeating piano figures seemingly running away from “the knife behind the curtain”, further invoking the lunar, dark-side-of-the-moon feeling the record has led us to at this point. Bridge “Interference” sounds like Yorke singing over an interlude from Scottish masters Boards of Canada, arguably the world’s leader of “these guys sound nothing like anybody else.”

“Truth Ray” is the most stripped down song here, setting up the eerie second half of the album well. You feel you’re falling further down the darkened crater of the planet represented in the artwork, and Yorke’s voice is the only thing guiding you down. The album’s wondrous conclusion is a triptych of “There is No Ice (For My Drink)”, “Pink Section”, and “Nose Grows Some”. “Ice”, in addition to being one of (if not THE) best song titles of the year, features a ravaging groove, and once again exhibits where ‘Amok’ dared to go but didn’t. Like that album’s eponymous closer, it has the sound of what was originally a normal pop track, yet chopped and screwed and turned into a newly catchy, brilliant number (see “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”). At seven minutes, it flies by at an impressive rate, before dissolving into the gorgeous interlude of “Pink Section”, one of the more experimental pieces Yorke has ever released, complete with crackly piano samples, a falsetto (or a sample of wind?), and the vision it implements of wandering lost through a bitterly cold snowstorm, trying to find the last glimpse of heat. The closer “Nose Grows Some” is this sense of heat, a very comforting end to the album, tying things up similarly to the way “Separator” tied up ‘The King of Limbs.’ Yorke’s voice is welcoming and even hopeful, as the synths rise and fall in beautiful tones and the melodies soar. It exists in a great headspace, serving as an escape from the nightmares and horrors the album may have hinted at but never truly delved into at any point. People want Yorke to go darker on his albums, and while he does reach some eerie places, he always seems to remember why people fell in love with his songwriting in the first place: while lonely and detached, something about his voice and the way he writes his melodies just make you feel right at home.

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