Friday, the music world was rocked by another surprise release by a top-tier artist. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke dropped his latest solo album, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.” The music on the album is unorthodox, but not as shocking as the release strategy of making the album available to everyone on file-sharing server BitTorrent for $6.00.
It’s a cold, well-crafted, seemingly-minimalistic set of electronic songs which revel more layers with more listens. It’s unapproachable at first listen and is definitely not the easiest introduction to the labyrinthine and rewarding sounds of Yorke’s career. And simultaneously, the album features a sometimes cinematic and sprawling sound.
It’s strongest at these moments — when it strives to be bigger on tracks like “A Brain in a Bottle” or “The Mother Lode” (the names of songs on this album are uniformly bizarre and ridiculous).
Or when it is just lush and pretty on tracks like the album’s closer, “Nose Grows Some,” which hearkens back to “Motion Picture Soundtrack” of what is arguably Radiohead’s finest album, “Kid A,” with its echoing and bird-like organ flourishes.
But others find Yorke taking his sound to lengths that are too intimidating, meandering or self-indulgent. “Interference” and “Pink Section” don’t really seem to go anywhere.
Aforementioned opener “A Brain in a Bottle” finds Yorke tinkering about. Its electronic soundscape has clearly been painstakingly created, and proves to me why I’ve always thought of Radiohead as being a band that works with the kind of perfectionism that Stanley Kubrick brought to filmmaking.
But it’s a blast to hear it come together on this song. The slightly ominous, repetitive beat at the heart of the song is intriguing, and it works well against Yorke’s distinctive falsetto. Interestingly, the song also seems to find Yorke dabbling in the more personal, even slightly flirtatious territory that he ventured in on Radiohead’s last album, 2011’s “The King of Limbs.”
“It’s like I’ve forgotten you / Think I’m gonna go to pieces now,” evokes the opening line of a song from that record, “Lotus Flower”: “I will shape myself into your pocket / Invisible, do what you want, do what you want.”
The looping piano and the opening line of the next song, “Guess Again!” take on a more eerie tone. “Wild dogs are howling / Behind the curtains / I hold on to my children.”
The echoes and layers of “The Mother Lode,” as well as some of Yorke’s best vocals on “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes,” work to make it one of the standout tracks on the album.
And the delicacy in both Yorke’s vocals and lyrics that is featured on “Truth Ray” serves the song well.
Overall, this is an intriguing album, but it’s not as strong as Yorke’s solo debut, “The Eraser,” or any of Radiohead’s work. The layers and textures are here, to be sure, but not all of the songs are as good as they need to be.
But Radiohead is rarely a band that wins anyone over at first listen. “Kid A,” my favorite album, took me innumerable listens to fully appreciate. But now that I get the album, listening to it from start to finish from time to time has become something of a ritual for me. So maybe “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” will grow with every listen, after all.