Thom Yorke Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

[Self-Released; 2014]

Styles: Thom Yorke
Others: Radiohead, Atoms For Peace

“We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid … we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function … zeroing in on what incalculable plot?”
– Thomas Pynchon

What do we see when we look at Thom Yorke? Judging by the critical consensus that quickly congealed around Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, the answer is never far from reach: a traumatized genius, a social-justice antisocial, a visionary grouch, a peddler of alienation. I don’t usually care for criticism that looks to other music criticism to find a point, but in this case, the polite and jaded acclaim that has followed Yorke’s latest release might tell us something about the man and the world he sees. To answer the above question, above all, we see him, a detached and symbolic figure. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that an artist whose presence and thematic interests have evolved so distinctively — in some ways not at all — in a time when change is normalcy should become an icon of fixed significance, a taxidermied trophy above the century’s critical mantelpiece. But that seems like a deferential and cynical way to treat a musician who has so tirelessly confronted the capital-friendly mythologizing that turns performers into personas and personas into drinkable attitudes.

Is it fair that every time Yorke gives us an album in a way that sidesteps established channels of promotion, release, and distribution, opinions take the form of reactions to the album’s promotion, release, and distribution? One way of looking at that phenomenon would reveal some irony: that in the process of trying to free himself from the stifling burden of corporate media, he’s stuffed himself into a pigeonhole that dictates far more narrowly how his music is listened to than iTunes or Amazon ever would. Received knowledge about Yorke in 2014 centers on this irony; obsessed with the loneliness and alienation of a world of accelerating information processes, Yorke has left himself with little more to express than the inner-world difficulty of expression, and having given up on the possibility of transcending that difficulty via music, he has withdrawn and fenced himself into successively smaller worlds of sound. The results may indeed be reflections of Yorke’s skill and sensitivity, but as compositions, they are self-contained and fully anticipated creations whose power to surprise or displace the listener has waned.

An assumption at the center of this narrative is that Yorke’s (or any artist’s) career should be understood as expression slowly unfolding, at different points “maturing,” “retreating,” “blossoming,” etc. It’s certainly true that his musical interests have led him down a clear path — Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’s terse, Burialian beats stretched across low-key dub wobbles don’t sound too far removed from The King of Limbs or AMOK, and could be considered the sonic scion of The Eraser’s “And It Rained All Night,” if you consider that kind of genealogy-tracing important. But while the theatrical digital transfigurations that once idolized him on past Radiohead releases around him have coiled up and spun away, leaving small eddies of rhythm and bare electronic swells behind, his anxious falsetto remains at the center, cutting a trail through an amorphous synthworld: “See God laugh and pick the bones/ The entity I wrestle to the ground/ Looked in the eye, looked in the eye.” Such defiant fatalism runs through the album, and Yorke’s repeated self-identification as a combatant — “I’m a fighter in the darkness/ The one who can’t be killed/ Elastic bionic man/ Guess again!” — reveals a complex set of social relations in the box-world of tomorrow (not to mention the double-entendre driven home by the “A Brain in a Bottle” music video). Industrial-scale atomization has always been one of the primary trends underpinning Yorke’s meditations, but if the album distinguishes itself from the rest of his work, it does so in that depiction of Yorke-as-gladiator: a reluctant, captive fighter for whom survival is victory and failure is inevitable. “In the future we will change our numbers and lose contact/ And I don’t have the right to interfere.” What can our message be when the media carrying them are an infinitesimal membrane and an evil, rose-colored truth ray? What will be left to say when saying is as easy as thinking? When our technologies live more compelling lives than we do?

Self-awareness is necessary but insufficient for Yorke, who has always been driven to locate himself in the broadest context possible, parsing systemic trends and slinking his preterite way into alternate modes of contact. The universe offered a convenient point of comparison just weeks before Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes in the form of U2’s Songs of Innocence; where Bono makes potato-flake-smooth stadium rock inspired by a punk- and conflict-filled past, Yorke makes jittery, claustrophobic tunes from visions of a future marked by triviality and ahistoricity. See now, music sprawling digitally across the world into our pockets and onto our desktops, see progress measured as the inverse of effort. Will the extra step of naming your price or downloading a new version of BitTorrent slow the commodification of artistic “content?” I have no idea. But we have to appreciate the occasional reminder that our familiar modes of contact and exchange aren’t neutral and predetermined, but constructed and within our control.

To seek out new modes of communication promises neither a restoration of lost power nor success, nor enlightenment. Maybe this is all Pervitin talk; maybe it’s an itch born of scratching; maybe there is no plot and no way to foil it. But as “Pink Section’s” overdramatic, warped emptiness resolves into “Nose Grows Some’s” pathetic heartbeat, it’s impossible not to feel that Yorke’s vibrant uncertainty remains resonant even as his “star” fades. I don’t know how this night will end.

Links: Thom Yorke - Self-Released

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