It’s widely assumed that singer Thom Yorke calls most of the shots in Radiohead. But the other four guys aren’t just window dressing — as Yorke’s solo debut, The Eraser, proves.
In between the drawn-out recording sessions for the U.K. quintet’s seventh album (due in 2007), Yorke quietly cobbled together the songs for his first solo release with longtime producer Nigel Godrich.
It’s not much of a departure. In fact, many of the tunes could pass for Radiohead demos. Some even include sampled slices of discarded songs from the band. The jittery tempos and click-pop loops, the alien atmospherics, the sense of doom — the shadows of Radiohead’s electro-tinged past (”The Gloaming,” ”Idioteque”) lurk everywhere.
The most significant difference is how Godrich recorded Yorke’s voice. Gone are the studio effects that tend to alter, distort, or submerge his vocals on Radiohead albums. Instead, his falsetto is remarkably exposed and vulnerable as it meditates on a series of slow-moving melodies. The effect is unsettling: a schoolboy trying to sing away the anxiety as he wanders into a deep, dark virtual forest.
Given much of the album’s subject matter, it’s an apt strategy. Rock’s most prominent worrywart seems positively forlorn as he obliquely addresses everything from global warming to the fallout from the Iraqi war. ”So many lies, so many lies, so many lies,” he warbles over a minimalist grid of electronic blips and bloops on ”Atoms for Peace.” On ”The Clock,” time is not on his side, or the planet’s. And ”Harrowdown Hill” is the sound of ominous footsteps gaining on the hapless: ”You will be dispensed with when you’ve become inconvenient.”
But the arrangements are equally forbidding, laptop soundscapes with snippets of more traditional instrumentation (guitars, piano), and the overall mood is austere and claustrophobic, even when compared with Radiohead at their most austere and claustrophobic (Kid A, for starters).
Whereas Radiohead pop tension with moments of grandeur, The Eraser cultivates uneasiness with snaky melodies that never make it to a roof-raising chorus. The closest Yorke gets to cutting loose is the distressing chant that splits ”And It Rained All Night”: ”It’s relentless, invisible, indefatigable, indisputable, undeniable.” But even this is more fitting for a feverish night spent shivering under the sheets than an arena-rousing celebration.
One could imagine the dynamics, colors, and crescendos his bandmates might’ve added, and without them Yorke sounds hemmed in. On its own modest terms, The Eraser provides insight into Radiohead’s inner workings. It demonstrates that Yorke needs Radiohead as much as it needs him to transform anxiety into rock arias of enduring beauty and power.