Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
Words Tom Spooner
Thom Yorke has just released an album. By ‘just’ I mean within the last few hours. It is available here as a BitTorrent download and costs just £3.68. It is an experiment or so says Nigel Godrich. More money to the artist: more power to the people etc. I’m going to try a little experiment myself. I am going to live review the album now.
I remember borrowing Radiohead’s Pablo Honey from the library for a fifty pence fee and illegally recording it to tape so I could listen to it on my Walkman. I remember The Bends annoying my parents – too loud, played too often. I remember being underwhelmed (my first experiments with being culturally aloof) by Ok Computer. And then I remember buying Kid A the day it came out and it changing my life. It’s amazing to think how music can so irrevocably alter a teenager’s life. And here I am, further down the line, having followed Radiohead and Thom Yorke releases more closely than any other band, excited to hear this new album.
I follow the link from the blog and already I need to sign in via Paypal. Wow – Paypal. I have not used this for a while. What is my password? I try many combinations. Eventually I get in. The card listed expired in 2012. I ferret around for my wallet. This now feels like a purchase as I open my wallet and remove my bankcard. I enter my details. All is good. But wait, I now have to download the BitTorrent app and this live reviewing business is tedious. Ten minutes later and we’re good to go. This will be rambling, incoherent and full of prima facie snap judgements. Don’t judge me though, it’s an experiment after all…
I’ve plugged my tablet into my stereo, cracked open a Friday beer and…
A Brain In A Bottle
Now this is a promising start, a generous charming over-eager bass wobble, some excitable snares snapping out some two-steppy business and Thom’s vocals are just gorgeous. Man, that voice – it’s smooth, treacly, evocative, full of yearning. Wow, now there’s some huge cyber seagull circling around, squawking. I don’t like seagulls but I like this. It makes me reappraise this track – I now hear the ocean, feel its power, and I see a lone vessel bobbing up and down in some great ocean as gulls circle hungrily above.
Piano, a basic handclap rhythm and an altogether gloomier vocal. If the opener was Thom’s voice pirouetting like a piece of silk in a seabreeze, this is a crumbled up paper towel in the bottom of a bin trying to unfurl. And forget the seagulls, this is all about rabbits as in ‘In the Headlights’ – Uncle’s Dad-dance reappropriated. This sounds like it was easy to write. My speakers like the bass though. Maybe I might too. It breaks down and loses its way in some cod-Radiohead ghostly oooohhhs. Next.
Now this is sparse. I hear synths. Old-sounding rich synthy tones and a nod to the architectural grand designs of Jon Hopkins and Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s sad sounding: there’s a genuine sense of reflection amongst the shifting tone drones and plaintive pianos.
The Mother Lode
It’s a Friday night and I’m worried this album is going to kill my buzz. I’ve got to go out in an hour and pretend to be more funny and charming than I am – I guess in a kind of Radiohead way. What do we have here? A heartbeat, some distant, more processed vocals and a wandering bass – pulsating. Aha. This is more of what I was expecting: the ‘I’m a hip DJ’, ‘Burial is my mate’, dubsteppy Thom Yorke. There is something about the vocal that’s fragile and I wouldn’t go as far to say this is reductive. It is not as cohesive or as atmospheric as Burial but its busy, striving towards something more interesting. Ah – now that’s more like a Friday night. A bass drop refrain introduces a bit of pep to proceeding.
It goes on a bit this one, drifting towards a close and sounding more and more like a drunken conversation in a club toilet – a wailing Thom, a jumble-sale rummager of a beat and the feeling we should have got a taxi at 3am and not stayed out. Time to grab another beer.
These song titles are a bit silly, ey?! I’m missing that infectious melody that Thom can conjure, when his vocal sails up through the beats and static. Those tricky, unusual melodies that grow inside you like a tapeworm. Eraser has some killer melodies. This is trying but it’s not there. Thom is singing ‘Oh my God’ over and over and it definitely isn’t in an OMG kinda way. He sounds sad again, reflective – like he’s sat in an armchair by a fire drinking brandy, pressing weakly at his iPad recording app with an arthritic ring finger. Wait a minute – his vocals have gone all Kid A-backwards-Twin-Peak’s-dwarf-like. Ah this is much better.
There Is No Ice (For My Drink)
DJ Thom is back. A nice bouncy bass, some vocal static frittering sprite-like around a hi-hatty beat. It’s got all snappy again – tight, urgent, with little room to breath. Let’s hope this one builds and actually drops. I can hear the year’s fall away from him now. I can see him as he was at the Roundhouse with Atoms for Peace, a twitching confusion of spastic energy in a vest-top. The Twin Peaks dwarf is back too and some Philip Glass choiry thing. And yep, that beat keeps going. Drop it. Drop it. DROP IT. It may lack soulfulness but this is a groove, I’ll give it that. It keeps on building. More layers are added, rising and falling, undulating kitchen sink business.
Ha – now this actually sounds like my tape of Pablo Honey, as it is mercilessly being chewed by my Panasonic tape-to-tape boombox. My hand twitches as I type – my body itching for a HB pencil to wind that mangled tape back into its cassette. Muscle memories denied: my mind knows better – this is some lazy experimental segue-way into the next song – all warped pianos and mangled ephemera. This is school report territory – could have tried harder.
Nose Grows Some
At last a beat. I wonder if this one is about Pinocchio or Tony Blair or someone else deserving of a serious sonic frown. It sounds serious. It sounds like a statement. Nice vocals again, more big bass hum and busy insect beats. This is atmospheric. It ends in a pop and fizz rather than a crash, bang, wallop.
Now my room is filled with silence. It’s seven-forty. I realise I spilt beer down my t-shirt and I’m going to have to change. I need to put on some going out tunes and it probably won’t be Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. It’s more pop and fizz than crash, bang, wallop but I’ll take that. It’ll probably develop with more listens or mature with age, like the best things do.