In hindsight, it seems as if every time Thom Yorke releases new music, the world becomes a bit more like Thom Yorke. A little more paranoid, a little more self-indulgent, a little more lost in the digital identity labyrinths that will eventually consume us all. Thom Yorke himself was becoming a little too much like a caricature of himself, running Amok and indulging in the post-Eraser apocalypse of shrapnel techno. That is, until he disappeared from sight only to return with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, his second full-length LP and a mature, sure-footed return to form (Yorke is now 45 years old, kids).
Immediately it is clear that TMB is a departure from electronic maximalism, which manifested itself this year in explosive releases from Flying Lotus, Arca, SOPHIE, and Aphex Twin’s comprehensive Syro. Think a little more Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor, a little less Hans Zimmer (finally). Yorke has left the sprawling, Apple-endorsed utopia of Earth for the frozen, stark prairies of the moon. In the first 20 seconds of the album, he subverts the lead rhythmic pattern twice by redefining the downbeat. ‘Brain In A Bottle’ is a succinct opener and classic Yorke existentialism. What follows, though, is thankfully less easy to pin down. Each song relies heavily on three or four key sources of sound: Thom Yorke’s voice, which is still that of a tortured and anxious young man, bottom-heavy beats that are the work of wounded but quick fingers, and the occasional wash of ethereal melody conjured on modular synthesizer or upright piano.
TMB could easily be labelled a companion to The Eraser, and album highlights ‘The Mother Lode’ and ‘There Is No Ice’ illustrate this link. But this album is more concerned with an introspective narrative that links every song, whereas The Eraser was motivated by social and political injustices. Elements and patterns from previous tracks can be heard tumbling around in the background in diluted, fractured form – distorted by time, as memories often are. For this reason, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes seems more like pages torn out of Yorke’s sketchbook – not incomplete, but deeply personal and experimental in tone and execution. Altogether the album is a fascinating exploration of a fascinating musician, and quite possibly his strongest solo work to date.