Thom Yorke's method of release for "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" obviously is of some interest in and of itself. However, I have no real interest in that. So I won't be commenting (he released it via Bittorrent, in case you don't know – and at a low price, too – the low price is of interest, though; note, however, that it is also available as vinyl, although for a considerably higher price).
Instead, I want to focus on the music, which is, after all, the whole point of an album. Although Thom Yorke sits upon a high chair of artistic credibility (a similar kind of chair to that inhabited by, say, Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush or David Byrne or Brian Eno or David Bowie – the popular vision of artistic credibility, shall we say?) his music remains very much within a predictable space. Ever since Radiohead released "Kid A", there has been little by way of surprising developments, musically speaking, within Camp Yorke. Immediately, it becomes about the songs, what are they about, or even a simple "are they any good"? His sound is already understood. A sudden foray into use of a woodwind quintet or a vocal and gamelan affair are not likely, it seems. Yet, such thinking is an unfair starting point for this album (or any other, for that matter): it is better to approach it outside the Radiohead bell jar for a start. The only valid context, in any feasible sense, is the previous solo album, 2006's "The Eraser"; yet, that album is actually very different when one listens to it alongside this new one.
So, with this in mind, I look at the songs as their own selves within their own collection, and not much further. There are obvious outstanding moments, such as the leading track (both in terms of placement within the album, and the fact that it comes with a video – albeit a somewhat slight and uninspiring video) "A Brain In A Bottle". The mixture of electronic pulses, filtered beats, and Yorke's falsetto is curiously appealing, although I admit I have a hard time figuring out what the words he's singing actually are. It makes the whole feel more like an instrumental. "Guess Again" offers slapped plastic snare sounds, chittering hats, loose-skinned kicks, lo-fi piano, and Yorke's fluid voice, this time in its normal register, and somewhat more comprehensible. "Interference" offers more lo-fi, this time with the sinekeys filtered to a suitably vague level. Lyrically, could be about personal or governmental privacy, but it's hard to be certain. At a wild guess, it's about Snowdeneque whistleblowing, or something like that. As music, though, it's both pleasant, and mildly unsettling. "The Mother Lode", which will be for many the album's best track, is immediately more engaging, and carries with it a recognizable bassline, unlike most of the rest of the album. Although 6 minutes long, it breezes past as though it were half that length. "Truth Ray" has a very laidback vibe, a certain trip-hop aspect, and a lack of urgency, but a tinge of some kind of desperation. This sets up for an increased impact of "There is No Ice (For My Drink)", which, in comparison to the rest of the album, is absolutely thundering along. It is also the clearest statement within the album, perhaps (the possible exception being "Interference"), and another addition to Yorke's expressions of concern regarding global warming. The eventual disintegration of the track, as though the tape itself was melting, underlines this further. "Pink Section" acts as a kind of coda to "There Is No Ice", while "Nose Grows Some" is a more wistful track, but once again, retains a certain disquietude through cleverly incorporated unexpected musical harmonies, hovering momentarily in the minor where it feels it should be major.
It has become clear that vagueness is something that Yorke has made his own virtue, his oddly minimal enunciation matched by low definition sounds. His anthemic leanings are nowhere in sight. The songs are more like mood pieces, even less clearly "song-like" than his previous solo effort, 2006's "The Eraser". At the best of times, one can only assume that what Yorke is singing about matters of importance to him, mainly because of his delivery. Yet, as negative as this probably sounds, it isn't. The effect is like listening to windfallen pop songs rotting amid the orchard grass. It is a strange beauty, yet a beauty nonetheless. While not likely to ascend to the lofty plateaus of adulation and respect inhabited by his albums with Radiohead, it is certainly worth the small investment he has asked punters to fork out.
It is unfortunate that the majority of those who will listen to this album will do so in order to divine what the (recently-confirmed-as-coming-into-existence) next Radiohead album might sound like. Apart from being a waste of time, it's a process that will force the overlook of a perfectly good album in its own right.
I will probably return to this album a little bit more often than "The Eraser", I feel, as the album's focus is literally on the music. Yorke has made his voice become an instrumental overtone, a texture, a counterpoint to his minimalist soundscapes. In short, this is a painterly album, impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic, but never aiming for some kind of maximalist, hyperrealism (and thankfully so). Remove this album from your comparison machine, listen to it on its own terms, and you very likely will find yourself pleasantly surprised.
The album can be bought here: http://tomorrowsmodernboxes.com/