Beginning with his 2006 solo debut, the forebodingly intimate The Eraser, Thom Yorke has succeeded at developing a distinguishable brand of oddly groovy insular electronica within his own easily defined sonic parameters. But separating his various side projects from the deep mythos of the Radiohead canon remains easier said than done. As the band evolved from early-’90s grunge to post-millennial frou-frou and beyond, the line between Yorke’s solo material and Radiohead blurred to the point where, on 2011’s polarizing The King of Limbs, many wondered if Yorke bothered telling the rest of the band to even show up. The trend culminated last year with supergroup Atoms for Peace’s Amok, where Yorke helmed an impressive genre mash-up that managed to both prominently feature the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass while burying him alive beneath endless layers of skittering electronica.
Yorke’s sophomore solo effort, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, which was released as an impromptu BitTorrent bundle, finds the singer-songwriter at a fairly distinct musical crossroads. The Eraser, The King of Limbs, and Amok, three albums from three separate Yorke projects, all function at various levels of inward exclusivity bordering on standoffishness, thus rendering Yorke, an artist famous for fronting one of the most influential and unpredictable bands in the world, susceptible to predictability for maybe the first time ever. While none of these releases suffer from diminishing returns, it’s clear that Yorke has chosen to age by applying a world-weary sensibility to an increasingly beat-friendly sound. The results have been either jarringly funky or just plain jarring, and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes manages to blend these approaches seamlessly. The songs threaten to disintegrate entirely under the weight of their own invention, but these moments are characterized by a refreshing sense of humanity. This is paranoia with a soul, and occasionally a heart.
Upon first listen, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes may sound like more of the same. And depending on how one takes their Radiohead, album opener “Brain in a Bottle” will inspire either dramatic eye rolls or pensive giddiness. A satisfying and claustrophobic descent into synthetic neuroses, the track utilizes Yorke’s trademark falsetto alongside an understated backbeat to achieve what sounds like a tender love ballad sung from within a padded cell. After all, Yorke is no stranger to the Casanova-in-a-straitjacket routine (see “Lotus Flower”). The remainder of the first half of the album takes a sharp left turn into the more directly morose with “Guess Again!” and the languid “Interference.” Both tracks channel some of The Eraser’s more elegant piano wanderings (namely “Analyse” and “Cymbal Rush”), but just as the minimalism of “Interference” begins to circle the drain, the aptly titled “The Mother Lode” arrives with a jolt. A melodic dubstep-inspired six-minute standout featuring Yorke harmonizing over an intoxicating house beat, “The Mother Lode” represents the artist’s most natural evolution as a songwriter and quite possibly his greatest solo achievement.
The second half of the album is largely composed of the memorably obtuse, from the mournful “Truth Ray” to the anxiously percussive seven-minute tour-de-force “There Is No Ice (For My Drink).” It’s not until “Nose Grows Some” that the album approaches anything approximating warmth; the song is a glorious embrace of borderline synth-pop after the hyper-sensory assault of “There Is No Ice” and the hypnotic “Pink Section.”
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes successfully pulls off a transitional balancing act that maintains the trademark elements of a Thom Yorke release while injecting subtle moments of fresh invention that hint at new sounds to come. Like most offerings associated with Yorke, its canonical significance remains contextual. But with Radiohead rumored to be in the studio plotting their ninth album, it bodes well for the future.