Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke, like a lot of other big pop names from Beyoncé to Trent Reznor to U2, has gotten into the habit of releasing new music as a surprise, often accompanied by rhetoric about its revolutionary distribution scheme. His voice-and-electronics album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, which came out on September 26, was announced that day via a letter from Yorke and Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich, declaring that its format — a torrent file, with a $6 charge to access seven of its eight songs — was “an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around,” and a way of “bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”
That’s a telling way of putting it. It’s both a sneer directed toward Yorke’s audience — you “general public” types think you can get your heads around this, or is it too advanced for you? — and a suggestion that The Man has somehow been keeping Yorke down. The indignation at the “gatekeepers” overlooks the fact that those are precisely the people who have built Yorke’s (and, more specifically, Radiohead’s) reputation to the point that it’s news that he’s releasing a new album. If he can get paid directly for his recordings (well, less PayPal’s and credit card companies’ “gatekeeping” fees), good going, but it wouldn’t have happened if he weren’t already the Thom Yorke.
There’s also the question of whether Yorke would save his best material for “an experiment.” Considered as a throwaway doodle to test out a new payment technology, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a treat: a full-on, 38-minute recording by a major artist, carrying on from the aesthetic of his last solo record. Considered as a statement meant to stand alongside the Radiohead discography, it’s iffier — largely because it is so much an extension of 2006’s Yorke solo album The Eraser that it’d be unsurprising if it turned out to consist entirely of outtakes from that album. And it’s so chilly and subdued that last year’s album by Yorke’s side project Atoms for Peace, Amok, sounds like a party record in comparison.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — and what a Yorkean title that is, a slyly disjointed phrase directed at a big, plump target — is probably best assessed as something between those two poles: a progress report on where the singer’s sensibility is these days (as Radiohead gets back into the studio after an extended break). Specifically, it’s more or less where it was eight years ago. Yorke still loves wobbling synth tones, puddle-slapping percussion, distant piano sounds, and the sound of his own voice’s heavenly high notes burdened as little as possible by enunciation. (Is that Yorke playing all the minimal instrumentation on the album, and doing the dub-inspired production? Who knows? The $6 bundle doesn’t include credits, although it does include an ad for the deluxe white-vinyl version, which costs a bit under $50.)
Yorke’s singing is so feathery here, and his arrangements so muted, that the album’s best tracks take a while to make their charms known. “A Brain in a Bottle” is built around a queasy four-note loop with treated bits of Yorke’s voice stretched like spiderweb threads across the mix. The most fully realized song here is “The Mother Lode,” a marvelously unnerving piece with metronomic piano chords tugging against a scuttling electronic drum pattern and Yorke’s delivery softly defying both of their rhythms.
The second half of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, though, goes beyond subtlety into inchoate vagueness. “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” is a seven-minute electronic haze-out that blurs into the sickly tone-bending of “Pink Section” — an instrumental that may or may not be named after a late-‘70s art-punk band. Yorke’s voice is the centerpiece of the album’s closer, “Nose Grows Some”; it’s got the gorgeous sweet-and-sour falsetto tones that are his signature, but the phonemes he’s singing rarely come together into identifiable words. Eventually, it fades out into digital percussion that approximates the crackling of a worn-out LP.
The gatekeepers, perhaps, will notice that something quiet has slipped past them, but conclude that it can’t have been all that important.