Let’s pop back to 2006. Bush is still in office, the World Series is about to be besmirched with a Cardinals victory, we’re trying to figure out if we needed a second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and more importantly, why did everyone see it? It’s an okay-ish time to be alive. If you were a fan of Radiohead, it was a marginally less okay time to be alive; the band was three years out from Hail to the Thief, and there was nothing solid on the horizon about a new album. And then, with only about a month of warning, frontman Thom Yorke announces that an album of his own work will be released. That album, The Eraser, is met with bracing positivity; it’s nice, Yorke’s taking the band’s “experimental laptop electronica and piano loops” thing kinda seriously, it’s slight but well composed, you feel smarter for listening to it…uh, anyone know if Johnny Greenwood’s picked up his guitar recently? Anyone?
It’s not that The Eraser was a bad album, it just felt difficult without being rewarding, and kind of inconsequential. It’s music that’s kind of interesting when it’s on, but nothing you’d venture back to on your own. Which makes the fact that it became Yorke’s go-to template in the 8 years since all the more baffling; Yorke and Radiohead have always been conscientious artists, but The Eraser, The King of Limbs, and Atoms For Peace’s AMOK (basically The Eraser: LIVE!) feel like they mean more for the creators than they do for any listening audience.
Yorke, finding himself again three years removed from Radiohead’s previous album and nothing substantial on the horizon, announced an album a few weeks ago, and put the sucker up for sale barely an hour later. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes finds the artist, again, in the realm of skittering, low-mix drum patterns, wispy vocal delivery, and piano loops and of course, bleepy-bloopy-anxious synths stretched to the point of austerity. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes pushes further into sad bastard EDM than Yorke’s past releases, as especially seen on kind-of album centerpoint/highlight “The Mother Lode”. There is, somewhere in that song, the wilted remains of a dance track redressed in a wobbly bassline that once could have been a beat drop, frigid, decaying synths, and a piano sample that comes down as the song progresses. The ending coda, where Yorke wordlessly sings and blends in with atmosphere behind him, is the album’s most beautiful moment.
Elsewhere, there are songs that work as decent listens, but do little to go above and beyond. Single “Brain In a Bottle” is “Lotus Flower, pt. III”, or “Ingenue: The Second One”, a kind-of single with a surprisingly sensual groove interrupted by a twitchy beat. “Guess Again!” is rooted in an unsteady drum sample and a forlorn piano arrangement, and with some of Yorke’s low-register vocals and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘ tightest song structure, sounds appropriately miserable. Even though the song takes awhile to get off the ground, closer “Nose Grows Some” finds a balance between understated melancholy and a warm sense of hope. If it was a little more compact or robust, it’d be a solid piece of mood music.
But large swaths of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes are just plain forgettable. “Interference” is just a sparse piano ballad that suffocates in its own haze-y atmosphere and a disinterested vocal delivery; if it had a stronger melody, any kind of percussion, or was just less dense, it would work better. The album’s middle section after “The Mother Lode” is disappointing, as well. “Truth Ray” is a five minute slog through the hollowed-out husk of dance track (I’m holding my breath for a lively remix), and “Pink Section” is like someone taking the background noises from Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and making it a tedious two and a half minute standalone track. These tracks aren’t bad ideas, but they’re just that: ideas. The album reaches a nadir, though, with “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”, a seven minute that barely registers any variations for the first four minutes between adding textures to transition into “Pink Section”. For a guy who made a career out of playing up the anxiety of modern living turning us all into computers, Yorke’s threatening to get lost in the machine himself.
I don’t begrudge Yorke for wanting to explore new sounds and do something different. That’s his right as an artist. What plagued The King of Limbs, AMOK, and now especially Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a lack of intensity or connection. They aren’t frustrating listens because they’re not what we want, they’re frustrating listens because they’re delivered with all the conviction of a stifled yawn, and about as much emotion. Radiohead apologists point out that the band’s best work isn’t that accessible, but what they forget is that something like Kid A had material that stuck on the first try to compensate for the record’s “very difficult, much art” tendencies (and then there’s “The National Anthem”, which is both). Yorke and collaborator Nigel Godrich are too good to make a bad album, but by staying in the same lane of art gallery-electronica for almost a decade now, they’re risking something worse: making a dull album.
Weighted record score: 3/5; the production values are too stellar for me to drive the score any lower.
Unweighted record score just as a listen in the context of Yorke’s recent output: 2.5/5.