Audience reception. That's all I can think about as I spin Thom Yorke's The Eraser for the umpteenth time. Reading through reviews of The Eraser (including message board debates), most of them are either praising the album for reasons a, b, and c, or emphasizing its mediocrity yet having troubles fully expressing why. But just about all of them are trying to resolve the tension between it being a Thom Yorke solo album written in a "new" context and an album written by the lead singer/songwriter of Radiohead, which evidently shines a spotlight on the importance of audience reception when articulating whether an album is "good" or "bad" or "culturally significant." Questions: Should we, the audience, judge The Eraser as a work in and of itself? Is it fair to compare The Eraser to Radiohead efforts? And how does one proceed to formulate "taste" based on these questions?
Fantasy can be fun, but it doesn't erase the fact that Thom Yorke is in Radiohead. Sure, Thom wrote most of the lyrics and arranged his early electronic "doodles" in a context removed from the group mentality of Radiohead, but a majority of these "doodles" were originally written, while not for Radiohead, at least in the context of Radiohead (in hotels, planes, etc.) — they're the songs that didn't "fit," according to Thom. But did "Fitter, Happier" fit with Radiohead? What about "Treefingers"? What exactly makes a song "fit" the Radiohead sound? Or is it perhaps the Radiohead standard that is in question? Nevertheless, traces of Radiohead are all over this album: "The Eraser" is based on a sample of Jonny on piano, "Black Swan"'s main riff is a sampled jam between Ed and Phil from 2000, and, well, this is Thom Yorke singing and songwriting, after all.
It's in this context where we can begin to understand what it means to go "solo." The Eraser was intended to have its own self-contained aesthetic (Björk's Homogenic being Thom's reference point), produced and recorded when Radiohead was on the rocks and when Thom's involvement with environmental group Friends of the Earth heightened. Thom programmed all the beats on his laptop, and Nigel Godrich produced and arranged the album, providing a sort of controlled sonorical environment. Imagine, though, if Thom stuck by his Radiohead aesthetic and created blaring, dynamic "Radiohead songs." He couldn't and wouldn't. Despite any illusions that The Eraser was an organic event born from "doodles," a conscious effort must have been made or at least acknowledged to separate it from the Radiohead discography (aside from not having the other members play on the album, of course), and it is in this intention where you can see how the pressure caused by the popularity of Radiohead essentially informed, or even dictated, how this solo venture might sound.
Most of The Eraser features suffocated, amateurish beats that are cut-up, looped, and processed, but ultimately structured as Songs through lyrical phrasing. It's this structure that both repels and compels me. On the one hand, I can't help but wonder what The Eraser would've sounded like if Nigel hadn't been so adamant about whittling down Thom's laptop experiments to the "best" parts and building songs from them. Nigel's production and arrangements leave very little room for the songs to breathe, and the attempts at creating its own sound-world (which I think Kid A did much more successfully) invites a sort of straightened consistency that wallows in its own tepid calculation, glossing over moments of dynamicism to emphasize The Voice. The songs are less dynamic because it's the shifts in vocals (both melody and inflection) that primarily dictate structure and form, not the other way around.
However, the emphasis on Thom's lyrics illuminates The Eraser's strongest asset: its content. In interviews, Thom has noted how Nigel absolutely refused to add much reverb to his voice, despite his requests. Although I prefer Thom's voice drenched in reverb a la OK Computer, it's at least interesting to hear his voice so dry and pushed to the forefront. With penetrating lyrics on songs like "Harrowdown Hill" and "The Clock," perhaps the non-vocal music works best as a platform for Thom's political biases (releasing the album on an independent label can be seen as a political move itself). As wonderful as his Radiohead lyrics can be — surreal, detached, subtly complex — the lyrics on The Eraser have less bullshit and more cultural immediacy. Admittedly, the vocal melodies can actually be pretty grating at times with their insistent presence, but the lyric sheet is where Thom can finally be more direct and personal without having to worry about falsely representing the other members of Radiohead.
Surprisingly, some critics are saying the album falls flat based on its inability to provide continual stimulation with repeated listens. But for me, the dialectic between "being songs" yet still avoiding cliché constructions (teleological narratives, obvious choruses, etc.) bodes well for The Eraser, despite its obvious tepidness and self-conscious aesthetic. I won't be listening to The Eraser too much in the future, but having an album that encourages such a wordy review is more productive than, say, another good ol' pop album written for distracted entertainment and designed for endless repetition. But that's just me. Really, it is in the cultural W.A.S.T.E.-land where the meaning and significance of The Eraser will be processed on a much wider scale, and whether or not people address Thom Yorke as the lead singer of Radiohead will ultimately provide the impetus that charges debate, inquiry, and subjective interpretation.
1. The Eraser
3. The Clock
4. Black Swan
5. Skip Divided
6. Atoms for Peace
7. And It Rained all Night
8. Harrowdown Hill
9. Cymbal Rush