“As an experiment…” began last week’s letter from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich, announcing Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke’s first solo album in eight years. The “experiment” was designed to solve the same problem the music industry has been grappling with since the heyday of Shawn Fanning—how to convince the digital world to pay for music. And the means were, if not exactly original, unique for an artist of Yorke’s size: a payment system managed by a version of the file-sharing software BitTorrent, which relies on users sharing small pieces of a file in order to circulate a shared whole. “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,” Yorke and Godrich explained; it’s a very different sentiment from the one expressed by Radiohead’s management following In Rainbows in 2007, when they described the pay-what-you-want approach for that album as “a solution for Radiohead, not the industry.”
BitTorrent involvement aside, Yorke and Godrich have essentially released music for sale on short notice, something Radiohead did already with their 2011 album The King of Limbs. In 2013, Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album-cum-multimedia extravaganza represented a generational shift six years after In Rainbows: the catchphrase "Pulling a Radiohead” was summarily replaced by “pulling a Beyoncé”. On the other end of the spectrum, recent model-busting approaches by Jay-Z and U2 were met with cynicism and disdain. Compared to these high-profile campaigns, the reception to Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ distribution gambit has been unremarkable, a collective shoulder-shrug.
Indeed, for a solo release from a member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, nearly everything about the album feels slight: the title, which is ostensibly a commentary on digital commerce but sounds more like a corporate slogan for a shipping company; the sparse, forgettable artwork; the video for lead track “A Brain in a Bottle”, itself a herky-jerky update of the clip for The King of Limbs’ blooming “Lotus Flower” single; the price, a scant $6 for an eight-track album that would typically go for at least $3 more at most digital retailers; and the runtime, which just barely cracks a half-hour, the shortest non-Radiohead album the singer has been involved with. Yorke—and, by extension, Radiohead—has spent the last two decades making a virtue of evading celebrity, but even by that measure, the presentation of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes comes across as quaint.
The same goes for the music, which represent Yorke’s strongest embrace of electronics to date. Radiohead once shattered the notion of what a rock band could be sonically, but even their most experimental albums had a beating heart, (not to mention a guitar or two); Yorke’s first solo album, 2006’s The Eraser, was chilly in its electronic explorations but it retained a sense of melody and pathos, while AMOK, last year’s forgettable debut effort from the Yorke-led Atoms for Peace supergroup, contrasted bleep-bloop tendencies with a distinct live-band feel. On Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, the line between man and machine has blurred to the point of disappearing, with Yorke’s vocals blending seamlessly with glitchy textures and stuttering beats. The result is in one sense the most challenging high-profile release of Yorke’s career—there’s precious little to grab on to in terms of melody and feeling, and you won’t find yourself humming along to anything here.
That said, certain elements of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, if given the right amount of attention, can be enjoyable to luxuriate in. “Guess Again!” is possibly the most Radiohead-like track on the album, a mid-tempo traipse of decaying pianos and crunchy backbeats that anyone who’s listened to “Pyramid Song” on loop will find instantly recognizable; the six-minute sorta-centerpiece “The Mother Lode” unfurls with layered vocal-abstracted samples and a skipping rhythmic gait that congeals with Yorke’s delicate high register, climaxing mid-track with a beautiful wordless digression. “Pink Section” brings more deconstructed piano—the most notable non-synthetic sound that appears frequently on Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes—to the forefront amidst a low, whistling howl, and the track nicely segues into closer “Nose Grows Some”, a mix of winding tones and subtly forceful rhythmic backbone with Yorke projecting an exquisite vocal presence at the forefront.
Elsewhere, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes slips into tedium. The wavering motifs and squelchy low end of “A Brain in a Bottle”, along with the seven-minute rabbit-hole excursion “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”, present rough, unappealing approaches to beat-building that call to mind Yorke’s dicey attempts at dance music; the piping tones of “Truth Ray” stand in place instead of building to any sort of resolution, and the largely beatless “Interference” represents a similar stasis. “I don’t have the right/ To interfere,” he sings in the song’s anti-chorus, underscoring the album’s general sense of passivity. As Yorke’s least satisfying work to date, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes can’t help but build anticipation for whatever Radiohead plans to do next—his need for a creative foil has never been more apparent.