If it wasn’t already clear, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ is less an album, more an experiment. It’s a direct-to-fan method that claims to flip the rulebook, and reset the field. What’s inside this modern box is an afterthought.
Every Thom Yorke release, from Radiohead’s pay-what-you-like ‘In Rainbows’ onwards (with the exception of Atoms For Peace’s ‘AMOK’) has been an attempt to deliver music in an instant, with zero faff and immediate gratification. Albums are announced days - or minutes, in this case - before they come online. Money’s exchanged, music’s downloaded in a flash - that’s that. Yorke’s mistake is in thinking this model can be replicated by whichever budding artists sit below in the food chain. For self-starting new bands, Bandcamp sits head and shoulders above any BitTorrent scheme, and for the heavyweights, even they might struggle with something like this. U2 had to force their record on people, after all.
There’s a running counterpoint to Yorke’s increasingly experimental release methods. By intention or default, they distract from the record itself, the fact that in the past five years or so the Radiohead frontman’s stopped reinventing the wheel musically. BitTorrent chief Matt Mason’s come out and said that there wasn’t going to even be an album without this novel release idea, that ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ was constructed as a response to the objective. This admission, in itself, betrays the record. It makes Yorke’s second solo album less of an event than 2006 debut ‘The Eraser’.
But if this is indeed a mere experiment, it’s one which sparks beautiful results. Beyond the chat, hoo-hah, ifs and buts is a record that cements Yorke’s continued progression as a songwriter, even if he’s relying on familiarity this time round.
‘The Eraser’ is the blueprint for the bleepy, bloopy, emotion-led solo project. On the de-facto follow-up, this formula is stuck to by the man himself. Opener ‘A Brain In A Bottle’ exists somewhere between that debut and the searing, industrial tones of Radiohead’s ‘Lotus Flower’. Beats remain processed and chipped-away-at. A great wash of noise, delay-struck loops and reversed guitar float around in the background, while Yorke’s voice remains effect-free and falsetto-ed. The same goes for closer ‘Nose Grows Some’, which mixes distant patterns with a gorgeous swirl of melodic feedback, very much like 2006’s ‘Cymbal Rush’.
Progression rears its head on ‘The Mother Lode’, a six-minute head-rush that links together a handful of beautiful, stop-start loops. Giving nods to The Field’s repetition-first technique, it makes way for Yorke’s musings on how “I only wish things would be different”. The LP’s highlight, it’s a track that could soar to the top on any post-‘Kid A’ release.
‘Guess Again!’, ‘Truth Ray’ and ‘Nose Grows Some’ will all sound familiar to anyone who spent countless hours exploring vast digital terrain on Radiohead’s ‘Polyfauna’ app. Stripped of phone screen-prods and one great nothingness, these are also good examples of Yorke managing to get to the point. ‘Guess Again!’ could be lifted from the ‘OK Computer’-era that also fledged eventual ‘In Rainbows’ highlight ‘Nude’. ‘Truth Ray’, meanwhile, links up with the ghostly ‘Interference’ in giving well-due respite to Yorke’s snapping beats and all-aesthetic-everything approach. Instead, this is a songwriter at his sharp, gloomy best.
The same can’t be said for ‘There Is No Ice (For My Drink)’ - which could be some grim flashback of Thom’s big night out in Berghain - and the eerie but loose-ended ‘Pink Section’. These sound like more of an experiment than any fanciful release method, add ons that separate six impressive tracks. There’s a nagging feeling that Thom’s no longer the person that’d backflip from ‘OK Computer’’s glory to ‘Kid A’’s unifying introspection, right up to ‘In Rainbows’’ continued desire to experiment. But that’s only because he bills himself as someone that exists to change the game - there’s an added expectation.
Free of statements and the man’s desire to make every record some kind of grand manifesto, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ is a mini-triumph that’s only occasionally tarnished. And if this was indeed some extended afterthought for Thom Yorke’s new release recipe, it’s one hell of an afterthought.