A new Thom Yorke album called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes popped up unexpectedly—and legally—on BitTorrent yesterday, containing eight songs and a video for the opening track, “A Brain In A Bottle.” The video reflects the music on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes: minimalist, skittery and chock-full of Yorke. Most of the “Brain In A Bottle” video is just Yorke’s face, leaning so far into the lens that he looks like an insect resting on a nanny-cam. The magic of editing sends Yorke’s bug-face jumping around the screen; and sometimes Yorke steps back far enough from the camera to reveal his slim frame, grizzled beard, boxing gloves and samurai-style topknot. All the while, the percussion track pops and skips, and Yorke’s multi-tracked voice winds around itself — a murmured conversation between people who aren’t listening to each other.
In the open letter announcing Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke and his producer, Nigel Godrich, called the surprise partnership with BitTorrent “an experiment,” adding, “If it works well, it could be an effective way of handing some control of Internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves.”
This isn’t the first time York’s tried to shake up the way musicians sell music to fans. In 2007, Yorke’s band, Radiohead, allowed people to pay whatever they wanted to download the album In Rainbows (also produced by Godrich). In Rainbows wasn’t some collection of demos and afterthoughts, either. It was Radiohead’s first LP in five years, and the band’s best since 2000’s Kid A. Radiohead didn’t just scare up some cheap publicity by selling through the Internet; they offered something of value.
Because that’s always the worry with these kinds of online “pop-up albums,” isn’t it? The outcry over Apple giving away U2’s new album to iTunes users wasn’t just about the galling presumption, but also a reaction to a fairly lackluster record, largely lacking in ambition. When a musician pulls a stunt like this, the ideal is to deliver something like My Bloody Valentine’s m b v, or Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. What artists want to avoid is the perception that their efforts to “cut out the middle man” are just a way of dumping off the kind of garbage that middlemen usually refuse to take.
So what is Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes? Another In Rainbows, or a collection of experiments that Yorke and Godrich couldn’t quite bring to fruition?
Honestly, with Yorke it can be hard to tell. In his handful of solo projects over the past decade — and increasingly with Radiohead — Yorke has favored songs that are little more than patterns of electronic noises, which sometimes work in concert to produce complex, exciting rhythms, and sometimes bleed into indistinct murk. (To be fair, the latter effect is often on purpose.) Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is on the rougher end of Yorke’s non-Radiohead recordings, and lacks the openness and eerie beauty of last year’s Atoms For Peace album Amok.
But Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a real album, with a progression and flow. Its eight songs cleave fairly neatly into two halves, with the first four working to construct and populate a dense sci-fi soundscape, and the last four tearing it all down, slowly and dispassionately.
“A Brain In A Bottle” sets the pace for the first half, with an electronic beat and a synthesizer that pulses like some alien creature from a 1950s B-movie. The layers of vocals represent some of Yorke’s best actual singing on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. One thing Yorke’s learned over the past 10 years of playing around with samplers and laptops is how to work with his unconventional voice, adjusting the mix so that he can essentially whisper in tune rather than yelping atonally. (Roger Waters often did something similar on the later Pink Floyd albums.) On “Brain In A Bottle” Yorke croons as softly and sweetly as a torch singer, but also murmurs beneath the lead vocal and scats some above it, creating the feeling of a community of people, rolling together through this little world that Yorke and Godrich are creating.
Trippy, echoing sound effects give “A Brain In A Bottle” a sense of fullness and dimension—as they do for “Guess Again!”, “Interference”, and “The Mother Lode.” The styles of these four songs vary. “Guess Again!” is spooky, with distorted handclaps and muted piano backing lyrics about what lurks in the darkness. “Interference” could pass for a pretty piano (or synthesizer) ballad, if it weren’t for its stunted melody and elliptical lyrics about alienation. And then “The Mother Lode” brings everything back around to where this mini-suite started with “A Brain In A Bottle,” restoring the warm pulses, intricate rhythms, and tuneful vocals.
The back half of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is what’s likely to divide even Yorke’s most devout supporters, however. Here, the mood is established right away by the spare, slow “Truth Ray,” with its hazy instrumentation sounding like it’s been reversed — similar to the way it sounds when a person sucks on a harmonica instead of blowing. The last four songs on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes are more about texture and rhythm for their own sake. The dub-like “There Is No Ice (For My Drink),” its decayed coda “Pink Section,” and the washed-out, almost New Age-y “Nose Grows Some” feel like they’re about people who’ve moved away from the crowded streets and flickering neon of the album’s first half, and are instead stuck inside a darkened room, staring dolefully out the window.
Yorke and Godrich know how to make all this fiddling about sound pretty good, even if just as background music. What they don’t seem to know how to do is make the songs sound appreciably different from their last few collaborations. Much like Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is just a couple of songs or even a couple of verses away from being a full, finished statement. It’s ostensibly four songs and four B-sides—exactly the kind of thing people fear is going to be foisted on them when an artist they love suddenly makes new work available on-line.
Yet Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is also fascinating as another dispatch from a man who these days seems to prefer solitude—and muttering quietly to himself. The dominant sound in Yorke’s music of late isn’t the synthesizer or the computerized drums. It’s Yorke’s voice, often stretched out and digitally altered until it becomes just another tone in the mix. Yorke rarely sings anything distinct on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, but the record still feels personal. Listen anywhere, and he’s always there, humming and rambling, filling every space.