Well, it turns out I may have been a bit premature in doing something like that. Because on Friday, the gawd himself, Mr. Thom Yorke, proved that you can still surprise people within the music industry when he, with little warning, released his second solo LP, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.
The move itself comes at a fascinating time, when Yorke and the rest of Radiohead have been very public about how they have reconvened in a studio to work on a new album after taking a year off; a year in which Yorke indulged in his side-project Atoms For Peace. But the timing makes sense, somewhat, if you look back into the dark ages of 2006. It was during the middle of Radiohead’s summer tour when Yorke released his first solo album, The Eraser.
A concise eight tracks in length, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is musically a step away from the afro-beat influenced electro skittering of Atoms For Peace. You could say it’s similar to the sounds Yorke explored on The Eraser, though it is noticeably moodier in tone, and more atmospheric in sound. With The Eraser, the focus obviously was on the electronics used to create it, but the songwriting was still relatively focused. Here, I hesitate to say that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is unfocused, but there is more of an emphasis on the overall feeling the album works to create—it’s murky, hypnotic, catchy; quintessentially Yorke, if you will, especially on the album’s final three tracks.
Even though it’s a bit of a dense affair, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, to me, anyway, feels more accessible than the Atoms For Peace LP from 2013, Amok. There’s a certain warmth and reassurance to many of the songs, specifically in the cascading synth waves and slow motion beats on “Truth Ray,” and the rickety piano sample on the up tempo “Guess Again!,” While it’s the album’s closing track, the rhythmic “Nose Grows Some,” a track that boasts some very Kid A vibes, and the halfway point “The Mother Lode” shares a similar feeling to the more beat-oriented material on Amnesiac.
I get the impression that in the last seven years, there are people in Radiohead’s fan base that have grown restless with the band’s very “un-band” sounding output as of late, as well as Yorke’s affinity for electronics and laptop beats. For an act that has a constantly evolving and changing sound, they’re never going to go back and make another The Bends or even another OK Computer. They are always looking ahead to the future—both in how to make music, and how to distribute it: the famous “pay what you want” model from In Rainbows, as well as Yorke’s decision to release Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes via Bit Torrent, with a special edition white vinyl LP available for those that do not mind dropping $50 on something Radiohead related (like me.)
But then again, I also spent $80 on the In Rainbows disc box.
From start to finish, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is the kind of record that’s not really out to prove anything to anybody. It’s also not out to redefine anything about pop music in general. It’s just a surprisingly cohesive, contemplative, and fascinating batch of songs released seemingly on a whim by an artist that has already redefined and proved so much in the last 20+ years. And it’s the quality of this effort that shows it’s not some piss-take collection of b-sides that have been taking up space on Yorke’s hard drive. Everything here, even the one track that causes the album to lose slight momentum—“There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”—is still way better and more interesting to listen to then, say, an Eraser-era b-side like “Iluvya,” or the throw away “The Hollow Earth.”
I don’t want Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes to be a temporary “last gasp” of Thom Yorke’s electronic influence as he begins work with the rest of Radiohead again, hoping that they put away the keyboards and various gadgets, and plug their guitars back in to make a “rock record.” The way I look at this record is that in what has been a somewhat lackluster year for interesting, and memorable music, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a refreshing jolt and an all encompassing listening experience.
Kevin also writes for Anhedonic Headphones.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he has been an occasional contributor to Bearded Gentlemen Music. From December 2013 until its the summer of 2017, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine, and from the summer of 2017, until the fall of 2018, wrote “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing also regularly appears in The Wagazine and in River Valley Woman. At the beginning of 2019, he launched the all new Anhedonic Headphones podcast, which you may subscribe to in such legitimate outlets as iTunes and Google Play.
He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.