Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Existential Wanderer

Thom Yorke - The Eraser (XL Recordings)

If anyone was still in any doubt as to which member of Radiohead was in the driving seat for the much-vaunted change in direction for 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac', here is the ultimate proof. Thom Yorke's first solo album is hardly a retrenchment into the safer territory of guitar rock. It's electronic, and it covers more of the same stark, minimalist terrain Yorke first tentatively approached on tracks like 'Idioteque', 'Everything In Its Right Place' and 'Packt Like Sardines...'. It's predictably insular, full of righteous frustration and, somewhat inevitably, it reveals his talent and considerable weaknesses in equal measure.

Yorke remains at his best when he focusses on the expressive quality of his voice. The opening title track is particularly effective with its layered vocal harmonies, although it revisits the same lyrical ground covered on 'Kid A', notably the celebrity-fixated desire to disappear from public view. It also seems to directly replicate the harmonic motif from 'Everything In Its Right Place', although its less eerie and more stuttering than that most beguiling of 'Kid A' highlights. Equally impressive is 'Atoms For Peace', which, with little more than a handful of notes and a beat as a backdrop, allows the conventional but strikingly haunting melody to roam free. 'The Clock' and 'Harrowdown Hill' deploy a similar effect with skeletal basslines (played with the same extraordinary lack of technique as 'The National Anthem').

Where Yorke has been content to compromise his ideals for big publicity juggernauts for Radiohead albums, he has succeeded in keeping 'The Eraser' low-key, switching record labels and only announcing its existence a matter of mere weeks in advance of its release. It's not surprising therefore that he allows himself to indulge his tendency for whingeing. Few could begrudge Yorke his fears for the state of the modern world - but it remains deeply frustrating that he is frequently so inarticulate in expressing them. The worst offender here is 'Black Swan' (a close relation of 'I Might Be Wrong'), with its chorus simply bemoaning repeatedly that 'it's fucked up'. Thanks for that pithy insight, Thom. Some of the music also feels a little impressionistic and sketchy, and it is in these moments (particularly the somewhat tuneless 'Skip Divided'), where Yorke elects to veer into vocal abstraction.

'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac' were 'difficult' at least in part because they flitted through a wide variety of musical stylings. The rock band arrangment of 'Optimistic' was a million miles away from the opaque digitising of 'Kid A', and the piano balladry of 'Pyramid Song' didn't sit terribly comfortably with the pulsating electronica of 'Packed Like Sardines...'. If anything, 'The Eraser' goes too far in the opposite direction. It's so coherent a record that it feels a little oppressive in its completeness. It's almost as if Yorke has a process through which his songs must go, so they all end up with remarkably simlar arrangements.

It's unlikely that this gives much of a pointer as to the direction of the forthcoming Radiohead material, but it certainly gives an illuminating picture of Thom Yorke as a writer - an insular character who spends vast amounts of time ensuring that his music adheres to a cold, stark blueprint. When this musical technique is married to vocal performances with power and emotional impact - the results are stunning. Yorke has a great ear for sound, and everything here seems carefully planned and executed. It's not always possible to submit comfortably to Yorke's bleak vision though - especially as this appears to be a world with no solutions and no means of escape. There's also a lingering sense that this is simply exactly what we might expect from a Thom Yorke album - plenty of bad poetry, some haunting and strikingly beautiful vocal performances with considered and deft arrangements, but no alarms and no surprises.

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