Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
By Adam Downer | 10 October 2014
The Internet may have finally swallowed Thom Yorke. “Thom Yorke Releases Album via Bittorrent” was the hot news of September 26th, 2014, before it, like so many other headlines that would have shattered the music industry in 2009, fell into the ceaseless current of culture, swept aside for the Flying Lotus stream or chapter twelve in the great “Mark Kozelek is an Insufferable Asshole” saga or whatever story peppered your timeline these past two weeks.
This is Radiohead’s niche nowadays. They’re the Internet’s elder statesmen, and the Internet is so used to having them toy with it via mysterious, progressive campaign methods that Yorke dropping an album out of nowhere is as exciting as it is expected—which is to say, not tremendously. It’s no longer necessary to wildly speculate over Radiohead’s every move when their moves of late have led to quiet, personal pursuits rather than cultural mega-bombs. Of course we still afford a reasonable amount of speculation as to what the group is doing at all times, but the hype for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was almost obligatory. Yorke tweets cryptic lyrics and a picture of a vinyl. Can we expect new music soon? Yes! And here it is, intimate and not particularly noteworthy to anyone but the diehards, like every Yorke/Radiohead project released in the past seven years. There’s only so many beat-heavy, chorus-lite albums the zeitgeist can suffer before it loses its fervor for Yorke-ian antics, and already it seems like Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is vanishing as the fanfare over its arrival dies out. One wonders how many actually cared for the former over the latter.
Which is a shame, because Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is actually pretty good, and sometimes it’s great, but it is quiet, sounding very much like it sprung from the Internet ether to politely ask for thirty minutes of your attention. It’s much softer than Yorke’s first solo effort, 2006’s The Eraser, with a heavier emphasis on atmosphere and chords. The Eraser could get cluttered as dozens of ideas waterlogged its songs. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, however, keeps things reserved, its production giving Yorke a spacious foundation to play in, such that when he sings “Think I’m gonna go to pieces…” on “A Brain in a Bottle,” he sounds small, like another layer in an album about textures and modest head-nodding. No belting and overwhelming drama a la “Analyse” and “And It Rained All Night” to be found here; Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is tiny fragments of neuroses never played louder than mezzo-forte. Classic Thom.
This makes it more unassuming than its predecessor, which in hindsight serves as the uneasy transition between 2003’s shaky Hail to the Thief and 2007’s In Rainbows. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes slides comfortably next to Yorke’s post-2010 releases as another, softer variation on the manic dance music he introduced on 2011’s The King of Limbs. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes arguably plays more to Yorke’s strengths than that record or his Atoms for Peace album, Amok (2013). Yorke has gotten stronger as a producer (or he’s just gotten better at cribbing Burial), but what really comes through is Yorke’s ability to craft beautiful, haunting spaces. Much more in line with what made In Rainbows so “magic,” Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes at times captures the atmosphere that makes Radiohead albums distinctive and allows Yorke’s isolated melancholy to play. The healthy dollop of reverb he’s given on “Nose Grows Some” gives Yorke’s gentle whispers the sad-ghost quality that makes his voice ethereal rather than grating, and on “The Mother Lode,” a subtle buzz underscores his vocal in answer to the track’s central glitching-audio motif. The compositions are not what make Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes work, but it is rather, like always, Yorke’s ability to find a sonic pocket he can make sing.
As such, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has its share of clunkers neither Yorke nor longtime-producer Nigel Godrich can breathe life into. “Interference” proves the A-side’s only flop, floating aimlessly amidst most of the record’s best songs, and the B-side flounders through a couple experimental drags before finishing on top with “Nose Grows Some.” These slips hardly feel like they matter in the overall context of the album, though. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is in no way a failure for being a pick-and-choose type of listen because it never presents as more than a collection of songs Yorke’s been fiddling with between projects that he released on BitTorrent because, fuck it. The dominant Radiohead narrative puts them ahead of the curve on understanding how their music is consumed. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes fits that perfectly: it’s scattershot, with a few good tracks worth revisiting, but ultimately something that will be left in the dust. It will be irrelevant by the time you’ve put together a coherent thought about it, so why make it something worth thinking too hard about?