On Friday, Radiohead frontman and dance enthusiast Thom Yorke snuck up on the Internet and delivered another sonic sucker punch. Not only did he announce that he had completed a new solo album called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, but that said album was already available via BitTorrent.
For a nominal fee of $6, hardcore fans were entitled to download a bundle that included all eight of the album’s tracks plus the unnerving music video for the track “A Brain in a Bottle”:
This is not new for Yorke, whose band ushered in the modern era of stunt album releases back in 2007 when they dropped In Rainbows with no warning and allowed people to pay what they wanted to for it. Since then, we’ve seen a number of similar stunts from the likes of Beyoncé, Nine Inch Nails, and most recently U2, who just two weeks ago unveiled the details of their new album Songs of Innocence the same day it was made available to everybody with an iTunes account.
Typically, whenever an artist releases an album via unusual or non-traditional means, the narrative about the method of delivery tends to eclipse other questions about quality—I’ve had way more conversations about the audacity of Bono and Tim Cook co-opting our iPhones than I have about whether “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is a good song (thought spoiler alert: it isn’t). Perhaps cynically, I accused U2 of using this release method as a smokescreen for what they knew was a middling album, but that same accusation can’t be made of Yorke.
Though his career has been spottier than Radiohead devotees would like to admit, Thom Yorke is more or less incapable of making a bad album. Some are better than others, but they’re always interesting in a way that no other stadium-filling rock band bothers to be. He’s simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by computers, and he forces his electronics into unusual shapes — often in the service of his still-other-wordly voice, which he uses to croon about the last moments of human bliss before our robot overlords crush us.
His first solo album, 2006’s The Eraser, felt like a series of fascinating demos waiting to be completed by Johnny Greenwood, and Amok, his 2013 album with his side project Atoms for Peace, also felt like a first draft. In the case of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke sounds as accomplished—and as natural—as he has in years.
That voice is key. There don’t appear to be any guitars on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, and it’s doubtful any of the percussion was created by hitting actual drums with sticks. Yet Yorke’s vocals, always ghostly and soulful, keep the album tethered to some sense of humanity. This is especially true on the humming ballad “Truth Ray” and the gently throbbing “Interference,” both of which drench the spectrum with great swaths of gauzy synth blasts, with Yorke’s fundamental melancholy filling in the gooey gaps. He can turn up the heat, too, as “The Mother Lode” bounds forward like an oncoming locomotive, powered by a simple stuttering beat and Doppler effect vocal samples. Most of the time, Yorke’s exorcising moans and falsetto coos are way up in the mix, which gives the suggestion that Yorke is in total control of the electronic elements around him and not the other way around.
Radiohead will forever have my respect, and I’m always curious about what they are going to deliver next, but they haven’t made an album I genuinely loved since 2001’s Amnesiac. Yorke’s new solo album is my favorite Radiohead-related release since Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, and I think its because Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes reminds me a lot of Amnesiac, with its phantom pop songs and its warming glow.
That was an album also eaten by its narrative: Released only nine months after the truly revolutionary Kid A, it was widely reported that the tracks on Amnesiac were all leftovers from the Kid A sessions, leading many to dismissively refer to it as Kid B. But 13 years later, it holds up remarkably well, and I’d be willing to wager Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will do the same. B+