Lately, I’ve been thinking about Thom Yorke as a musical version of Steven Soderbergh: An insanely gifted popular entertainer who’s come to think of himself as a trickster auteur type, someone who will concoct dizzily difficult artistic scenarios for himself and then solve his own puzzles with breathtaking ease. The thing about Soderbergh is that even when he’s not in Erin Brockovitch/Ocean’s Eleven blockbuster-entertainment mode, even when he’s pretending to be difficult, is that his movies tend to have gratifying, easily understood emotional arcs. He can fill his movies with nonprofessional actors or bizarre filmmaking flourishes, but you still feel like you’re in the hands of a master entertainer, not a challenging visionary. Yorke has his own blockbuster-entertainer mode, too; when they feel like being that, Radiohead are still probably the best arena rock band currently working. But even when he’s linking with Burial or Flying Lotus, Yorke’s voice has an ineffable float to it, something recognizable to anyone who’s ever enjoyed “Paranoid Android” or “Optimistic” or maybe even “Creep.” On AMOK, the debut full-length from his newish band Atoms For Peace, Yorke devises all sorts of traps for that voice: Endlessly twitchy rhythmic beds, hall-of-mirrors synth-blips, time-signatures too convoluted for a roomful of metronomes to chart. At times, he sounds like he’s singing for a warm, low-tech version of Autechre. But that voice always hovers over everything, triumphantly soothing, offering an uncomplicated form of beauty that ultimately overshadows everything else.
If I wanted to stretch things a bit too far, I’d say that Flea, maintaining bass duties in Atoms For Peace, is Yorke’s equivalent to Channing Tatum: A known-to-the-masses boldface name, frequently seen in his underwear and widely believed to be stupid, who turns out to be capable of great work when he’s paired up with the right auteur. But that parallel doesn’t really work — not because it leaves you wondering whether Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the first Step Up movie but because Flea, at least here, is a relatively anonymous presence. Atoms For Peace is a staggering, fascinating collection of musicians: Flea, Radiohead buddy Nigel Godrich, star alt-rock session drummer Joey Waronker, unknown-quantity percussionist Mauro Refosco. In the end, though, they don’t sound like a band. Yorke recruited all of them in the first place so that they could stand onstage behind him and play the intricately layered, inward-looking backing tracks that made up his solo album The Eraser. And on AMOK, to the extent that they sound like flesh-and-blood musicians at all, they sound like people who would be really good at playing The Eraser. In the rare moment when you can pick the individual moments out — the supple and subtle rubberband-bass tones on “Stuck Together Pieces,” for example — they sound fantastic. But they also sound like loops, like the precisely-calibrated work of a machine too sophisticated to exist for another couple of years yet.
AMOK, then, is very much Yorke’s project. And like The Eraser before it, it seems soft and minor, almost by design. Yorke sings everything in a mutter or a coo or a mutter-coo, and you need a lyric sheet to decipher words that, it turns out, are all diffuse meditations on disconnection anyway. The music is content to ripple and sputter deep in the background, to add strange new shades to your day rather than to recolor it completely. And the whole thing sounds immeasurably better on decent headphones than on speakers, exactly as you’d imagine. York piles on layers of his own voice until he sounds like an impossibly sad swarm of bees, or he buries himself in blankets of synth-drum-bass until he’s practically a ghost of himself. Even on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead would occasionally offer up something resembling a tangible, conventional rock guitar riff; Yorke never turns out anything like that here. Rather than songs, he mostly gives us tones and textures and densely knotty grooves.
And yet AMOK doesn’t sound the slightest bit difficult or impenetrable. It’s a mellow, inviting sigh of a listen. Those rhythms are all unfailingly tricky and cerebral, but there’s a comfort in them too, especially since the individual sounds that the band layers up are so sharp and clear and wonderfully recorded. It’s all mastered so that you can pick out every ripple of drum or synth on headphones, so that each new element the band piles on has enough room to make its presence felt. Nearly every sound on the record is soft and pillowy, none more so than Yorke’s voice. Over and over, that voice seems to wander into transcendent flights of melody, as if by accident. If Yorke wanted, he could probably still write straight-up rock songs that would knock the collective lot of us dead. Instead, he’s given us this itchy and introverted but compulsively listenable bit of beat-warping. I’ll take it.
AMOK is out 2/26 on XL.