Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes deserves to be taken on its own terms — and on those terms, it’s a marvelous piece of work. This is a Thom Yorke album, though, so it’s impossible not to experience the music in the context of his long, legendary career. Furthermore, the album arrives during somewhat of a cold spell for Yorke. He hasn’t delivered a universally beloved masterpiece in a while, and although he might not be putting himself under that kind of pressure, his fans most certainly are. As someone who had my world turned upside down by Yorke’s music several times over, I know I am. Even under the weight of that much expectation, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes holds up. It’s minor Yorke; it doesn’t operate on the same scope as the run of all-time classics Radiohead made their name on, nor is it in the same echelon quality-wise. Yet in its own, low-key way, it’s the most satisfying music he’s released in years.
Yorke’s new solo album, delivered by surprise today via paygated BitTorrent, is the best project he’s been involved with since Radiohead’s 2007 late-career highlight In Rainbows, the last time he set the internet on fire with a surprise, self-distributed LP. The band’s 2011 release The King Of Limbs offered higher highs than Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, but even at just eight tracks long it was frustratingly uneven. Amok, last year’s debut by Yorke’s funky supergroup Atoms For Peace, struck me as flat, uninventive, and meandering — the audio equivalent of his unflattering midlife ponytail. Maybe knowing that he’s going to blow people’s minds with an album out of nowhere gets Yorke’s creative juices flowing, or maybe he’s taken to saving his most powerful statements for these momentous reveals. Either way, this ominous full-length tone poem is the sort of stunner you hope and pray for when Yorke announces a new batch of songs.
It’s a Thom Yorke album in substance, not just in name. That is, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes doesn’t bear the unmistakable sonic signature of his Radiohead bandmates — Jonny Greenwood’s mad-scientist flourishes, Colin Greenwood’s impeccably catchy bass parts, Phil Selway’s alien beats (sorry Ed O’Brien, you’re cool too) — nor does it sound like the brainy noodling of Atoms For Peace. Fittingly, its most obvious precursor in Yorke’s discography is 2006’s The Eraser, the only other album he’s ever released under his own name. Like The Eraser, this latest offering is built predominantly on programmed beats, oblique piano, and synth sounds that congeal and disperse like dense digital fog. Its songs are steeped in repetition, often building celestial textures over short, potent vamps. The biggest difference is that The Eraser, bleary though it may be, was a more outgoing record than this. Songs like “Black Swan” and “Harrowdown Hill” were driven by organic bass grooves, and Yorke’s vocals were clear, bright, and audible. He seemed to be trapped in a TRON sequel, but he was still slinging anthems. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a more darkly insular collection. It’s like Yorke is literally picking up where he left off with The Eraser closer “Cymbal Rush” — yet even that song, which evoked the feeling of fearfully passing through some ethereal dimensional portal, had some swing to it.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is heavily reliant on rhythm too, but its beats are crisp digital skips and starts indebted to Yorke’s friends and collaborators Burial and Caribou. Sighing, skittering banger “Brain In A Bottle” opens the album like Radiohead’s gnarled Hail To The Thief curio “The Gloaming” crossed with Caribou’s liquid party-starter “Odessa.” Yorke’s delicate falsetto hovers above the controlled chaos, doing the gorgeous things it does, a warm glow shining down into a hall of mirrors. That’s followed by “Guess Again!”; a glassy piano loop set to a jittery snap and monolithic bass, it approximates a club remix of “Pyramid Song.” The ensuing ballad “Interference” is bass-heavy and bereft of percussion, and it gets the most of Yorke’s whale call. Meanwhile, Yorke’s main vocal intones, “I don’t have the right to interfere,” with a mix of defiance and resignation. “The Mother Lode” uses his voice as an instrument too, turning his self-harmonizing into mortar for more stellar piano and programmed beats then topping it off with playful muted singsong until the track builds to a more desolate crescendo. The effect resembles Kanye West’s 808s And Heartbreak remixed into a brisk, otherworldly Gold Panda production.
“Truth Ray” begins Side B and sounds like a clear point of demarcation, with Yorke trying on a trip-hop beat the likes of which he hasn’t dabbled in since DJ Shadow was one of his primary inspirations and collaborators. “Oh my god, oh my god,” he mutters, his words echoing weakly across the shimmering soundscape, then, “Don’t let go, don’t let go.” It’s one of the most discernible lyrical moments on the album, though what comes next might be Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ clearest statement of intent. Judging from its title, the seven-minute centerpiece “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” seems to be a harsh commentary on climate change, an issue that has long loomed large in Yorke’s consciousness. The song’s trajectory bears out that interpretation; it sounds like the hum of machinery, and it melts away before your very ears. “There Is No Ice” flows freely into the short instrumental follow-up “Pink Section,” which feels like drowning in the aftermath. The album ends on a slightly more hopeful note, but even the beautifully tender “Nose Grows Some” is haunted by the specter of powerful liars.
On first pass, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes feels more like a world to be explored than a set of songs you can experience casually. Yorke’s albums are rarely like that, but these songs in particular are so uniform in mood and aesthetic that they seem to bleed into each other. Some will probably find this music too bleak for regular rotation, likely lamenting that Yorke’s melodies are either garbled, buried, or nonexistent. He’s spent a decade and a half away from the guitar theatrics and triumphant wailing that first won Radiohead accolades, but he’s never ventured further from all that than he does here, which is really saying something. Yet for all its deathly bleakness, this is lively and inspired stuff from a guy I was starting to worry had lost his touch. I don’t have to work to get immersed in Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes the way I did with Amok and The King Of Limbs. It just washes over me, and I have a feeling that as we return to it in the coming weeks and months, new flashes of color will keep leaping out of the gray.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is out now. Purchase it here via BitTorrent.