There’s no rest for the wicked; is there, Radiohead? The individual members have been quite active since the band’s hiatus after wrapping up the tour of 2011’s The King of Limbs. Percussionist1 Phil Selway released his second solo album Weatherhouse, guitarist Johnny Greenwood composed the score for Inherent Vice, and Atoms for Peace – which includes Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and long-time collaborator Nigel Godrich – released their debut album Amok. Yorke has been particularly busy: he entered the studio again in early 2014 to record his second solo full-length Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, not to mention preliminary work on Radiohead’s ninth studio album at the end of that year.
As is Yorke’s wont, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was dropped somewhat by surprise in September 2014, with nothing but a couple of vague Tumblr posts,2 some previously unheard music on Radiohead’s Polyfauna app, and some sporadic live performances to tip fans off of an impending release. It was independently released via a BitTorrent “bundle,” which enables users to download a limited number of copies of the album (in addition to artwork and a music video for single “A Brain in a Bottle”) through a client such as μTorrent. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sold over a million copies within its first week of sale,3 and later saw releases on Bandcamp and Apple Music in addition to a physical copy on CD sold through Hostess Entertainment.
Just as Atoms for Peace’s Amok4 is a companion to Yorke’s solo debut The Eraser; if Radiohead’s The King of Limbs is an autumn album, then Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a winter album. The latter utilizes similar aesthetics of the skeletonization of contemporary music as the latter, yet is more “electronic” and without the alternative rock compositional structure. Additionally, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes uses the somber theatrics – such as piano leads and solemn dub bass lines – of The King of Limbs but makes them simpler and fainter – as snowdrifts on trees devoid of leaves – as seen on the low-bpm “Truth Ray” and the solipsistic “A Brain in a Bottle.”
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is glacial, even passive. “A Brain in a Bottle” is the most dub-like song on the album that prominently features Yorke’s characteristic creeping sound effects and multi-tracked harmonies. “Guess Again!” makes heavy use of the sustain pedal in its piano lead – akin to “Pyramid Song” from Radiohead’s Amnesiac, although the results are far less funereal. “Interference” is this album’s aromantic ballad, with spacey keyboards entirely devoid of percussion. “The Mother Lode” is simply beautiful, featuring Yorke’s best bass line of all his solo output. “Truth Ray” is a (naturally) neurotic take on infatuation, but contains a bit of hope in the repeated phrase “don’t let go.” “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” and “Pink Section” form a ten-minute ambient dub suite that intimate Yorke’s oft-discussed fears of mankind’s environmental impact; it’s a moderately unsettling, affective5 atmosphere that emphasizes the dreamy melancholy of closer “Nose Grows Some.”
Overall, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is far less eerie – even benign – than Yorke’s recent output; yet it is just as beautiful, if not more so, than The Eraser. Reactions to this album will mirror those to The King of Limbs: those who found The King of Limbs‘ plodding atmosphere boring will pass on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘ reticence; those who enjoyed The King of Limbs‘ wistful solemnity will find comfort in Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘ pensiveness; finally, those on whom The King of Limbs grew over time will find that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes requires similar time to settle after those first few listens.
And yet, despite the necessary comparisons of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes to previous elements in Yorke’s discography, it stands on its own in compositional quality and theme. This is a study of contentment in desolation – much in the way that an austere winter births a bountiful spring, and how beautiful such austerity can be under a shimmering night sky.
1. A Brain in a Bottle – (4:40) – ★★★★☆
2. Guess Again!- (4:23) – ★★★★★
3. Interference – (2:48) – ★★★☆☆
4. The Mother Lode – (6:07) – ★★★★★
5. Truth Ray – (5:13) – ★★★★☆
6. There Is No Ice (For My Drink) – (7:00) – ★★★★☆
7. Pink Section – (2:34) – ★★★☆☆
8. Nose Grows Some – (5:22) – ★★★★★
1Because it just doesn’t feel right to call him a “drummer.”
2“Thom Yorke is up to something as he posts vinyl picture | DIY,” DIY Magazine, accessed 29 November 2015, http://diymag.com/2014/09/22/thom-yorke-is-posts-vinyl-picture-is-definitely-up-to-something
3“Thom Yorke tops lists of most legally downloaded artists on BitTorrent in 2014 | NME.COM,” Time Inc. (UK) Ltd., accessed 29 November 2015, http://www.nme.com/news/thom-yorke/81927
4… which was formed to play the songs from The Eraser live.
5Yes, “affective.” It’s a very effective word.