Thom Yorke is a man full of surprises. In the last decade or so, most album releases he’s been a part of have seen him reinvent musical marketing strategies over and over again. It started with the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows back in 2007, when fans could pay what they wanted for the album. As well as this, Radiohead also released an album the same day it was announced (for 2011’s The King of Limbs), and now Yorke has released his brand new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, via file-sharing programme BitTorrent. In the accompanying press release, Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich explained that they wanted to test a new way of possibly releasing music. Since its release, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. But is it any good?
The record kicks off with buzzing synth noises and trip-hop drums on A Brain in a Bottle, before a swaying melody and Yorke’s signature, reverb-laden vocals intertwine in musical bliss. There are similarities to Yorke’s work with Atoms for Peace here, as well some of Radiohead’s more left-field works post-Kid A. The lead single is nothing revolutionary, but it’s enough to show us that Yorke has been working very hard on maintaining his recognized sound. Guess Again! follows with more breakbeat drums, as well as demure piano chords and a deeper vocal. The lyrics are, as expected, quite undecipherable save for a snarky mention of the track’s title and a lyric of, “as one door closes, another opens”. The shorter Interference opens with fuzzy synths and a hypnotic background drone, before Yorke sings “we stare into eachother’s eyes like Jackdaws, like Ravens” over an eerie melody and high-pitched wails. He sings, “I don’t have a right to interfere” as the song ever so slowly builds itself up through means of a dark melody and overlaying vocal samples. The lyrics are quite personal, fitting in perfectly with the intimate mood of the song. The Mother Lode is classic Yorke, making use of more pacey piano chords, as chopped up vocal samples accompany his own vocals alongside crackling synths and more breakbeat drums. It builds up slightly towards the end as the synths increase in intensity, before the earlier piano chords play back and forth with Yorke’s effects-laden vocals. It ends in a mess of reverb and swirling vocals, before the melancholy intro of Truth Ray sounds like a Portsmouth harbour rave at 4am, with its horn noises and maritime effects. It picks up slightly halfway through as the horn-like synths get louder and more intense. The 7-minute long There Is No Ice (For My Drink) opens with a dark, bouncy rave melody like something out of a 1980s video game, before odd vocal samples loop over and over in conjunction with tribal-esque drums. Over the course of its 7 minutes, the song does not stray away from the dark melody and drums, only doing so to add a new element to the song. At one point the drums become more noticeable, before extra synths enter the frame alongside a high-pitched beeping noise. Around 5 minutes in it all changes, as the drums go from tribal to breakbeat and we hear more audible vocals from Yorke. The closing piano melody proceeds to lead into Pink Section, which opens with ambient noise and effects-laden vocal samples. Piano enters around a minute in on the instrumental track, which is quite bare and stripped down save for the repetitive ambient vocal samples. Pink Section segues perfectly into album closer Nose Grows Some, which is a mixture of the previous track’s ambient noise as well as another load of breakbeat drums and soulful vocals. As with the preceding 7 songs, Nose Grows Some is Yorke-by-numbers, encompassing everything he does (best). That is, a mixture of ambient noise, hip-hop/breakbeat drums, reverb-y vocals, some piano lines, a hypnotic melody and an overall downbeat mood. That’s not to say that what Yorke does is bad, just that he makes use of the same formula over and over again, with a few little bits and pieces thrown on top for variety.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a fine album. Although these songs are nothing exceptionally groundbreaking or revolutionary, they carry just enough weight to keep the listener interested. Lead single and album highlight A Brain in a Bottle demonstrates this perfectly as it shows us that Yorke is still great at what he does. You’ve also got to give it to Yorke for repeatedly finding new ways to release music, as that makes his releases even more exciting. Let’s just hope that, by the time another spectacular marketing ploy unleashes a new Radiohead album upon us, that the marketing and release isn’t more exciting than the actual music, because that’s a trap Yorke may have fallen into with this release.