Out of the blue on what was thought to be just another normal Thursday afternoon Thom Yorke dropped a brand new solo album. No real warning, other than some random tweets of some mysterious white vinyl spinning. Thom and Radiohead are no strangers to the surprise release, with In Rainbows and The King of Limbs being two albums that seemed to come from nowhere and melt our brains. Well Thom has done it again. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes keeps things footed in the electronic and glitchy department, and if you’re a fan this really won’t surprise you. What? Were you expecting something more along the lines of Pablo Honey? If so, you might want to take the Tardis back to 1994.
Yorke’s solo debut, the dark and dystopian The Eraser, showed what Thom could do with nothing more than a laptop and his pal Nigel Godrich. It was heavy on the beats and looped keys, but was fueled by Yorke’s ghostly voice. A sort of Ray Bradbury short story turned into a glitchy, electronic rock opera. Thom Yorke took what him and Radiohead had began cultivating on Kid A and Amnesiac and brought it full circle. Where the electronics on those albums seemed to work towards confusing and lulling the listener, The Eraser used the loops and beats as a means to deliver more of a pop-centric album. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes continues that trend. But since 2006 Yorke has gotten pretty comfortable with his laptop beats and synth soundscapes. There’s an ease and flow with this album that hasn’t been heard in some time. I think his time with Atoms For Peace has loosened his grip on the blippy, glitchy sounds. A song like “A Brain In A Bottle” cannot truly be appreciated until it’s been heard through headphones. Much like the rest of this record, “A Brain In A Bottle” is a dizzying display of studio magic. Wavering synth floats from left to right while the beat remains firmly centered. Soon enough it seems that off in the distance there’s some sort of electronic rustling. Weird noises hover just under Yorke’s reed-thin falsetto. This is electro psych. “Guess Again!” runs along with a steady beat and what sounds like a distant piano. This song sounds like something that would’ve fit nicely on The Eraser. Some heavy bass rolls in to rattle any trunks in throwing distance. “Interference” opens with the line “We stare into each other’s eyes, like jackdaws, like ravens” setting up a mournful track that feels like some dystopian, space age tragedy. “The Mother Lode” is about as upbeat as this album gets, bringing a bit of The Eraser and “Atoms For Peace” into the fold. It’s kinetic beat and Yorke’s vocals keep the song moving nicely.
So, you’re probably wondering what makes this album any different than anything Yorke has done since 2006? Well, I’m not really sure I can answer that. But I’d respond with why would you want it to be different? I feel every time out of the gates Thom Yorke expands a bit on his capabilities as a songwriter, composer, arranger, and generally being a human. These electronic records he dabbles in from time to time seem like a rather freeing exercise. He obviously loves to create music, whether he’s in a room with Radiohead or alone with nothing more than headphones and a laptop. Electronic music as a whole has been devoured by a good number of folks. It’s become the go-to genre for those that can’t play nice with others(as well as those that just love EDM and like to create in solitude.) Thom Yorke has gotten to a point in his electronic exploits to where he can sit back a bit and let the music take some of the load. He doesn’t have to be front and center like he did eight years ago. A track like “There Is No Ice(For My Drink)” proves that. It’s nearly seven minutes of fidgety beats and noises whizzing by. This is the electronic equivalent of a psychedelic jam track. I can just imagine Yorke dancing uncontrollably as this song pumped through the studio monitors. There’s no pretense here. It’s just Thom having fun making music. “Pink Section” is a short piano piece that leads into “Nose Grows Some”, the excellent closer. A bit melancholy and distant, much like a cosmonaut stranded on a distant star.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes may indeed be “more of the same”, but I say when “the same” sounds this good, why change it? It’s some of the best production you’ll hear this year on any album. It flows and grows with each listen. It’s a minor masterpiece and one of the best records of the year.
9.1 out of 10