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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Thom Yorke Flatlines With 'Tomorrow's Modern Boxes'

Keri O'Mara
Keri O'Mara
Thom Yorke is kind of old. It’s not so much a matter of years as it is records, concerts, interviews and general fan-worship; the man has helped craft more than his fair share of brilliant LPs and singles with and without his legendary band Radiohead. Yorke’s versatility as a songwriter and singer has allowed him to create and traverse massive emotional rollercoasters within his records. Alternatively snarling, gentle, fearful and seductive, Yorke’s vocals have allowed his group and solo acts to remain enthralling as vehicles for both social commentary and heart-rending catharsis.

After so many years of impassioned creation, the artist seems to be loosening his grip on calculated greatness. The relatively restrained nature of Radiohead’s most recent record “The King of Limbs” and Yorke’s side project "Atoms For Peace" seem rather separate from the heavy grunge and post-rock of his earlier work.  While “OK Computer”and “Kid A” are nothing short of modern opuses, “The King of Limbs”and “Amok” fall closer to polished personal compositions.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Yorke’s newest record comes across as a rather casual affair. Essentially a mix of shuttering beats, Thom’s floating vocal melodies and warm atmospheric synths, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” doesn’t bring anything unfamiliar or surprising to the table. With the exception of “The Mother Lode,” the eight tracks that make up the record fall closer to loop conglomerations than actual songs. A host of wandering vocal melodies and pleasant knob-twiddling keeps the record from feeling irritatingly repetitive. Also, the warm production on "Boxes" finds Yorke falling closer to his contemporaries than ever before. Ditching ultra-clean, sculpted sound crafted on releases like “In Rainbows” and “Amok,” Yorke is finally able to strike territory closer to the IDM influences he constantly cites in interviews.

While “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” boasts an increasingly ‘modern’ sound, it’s still hugely reliant on Yorke’s distinctive voice. His unique vocal melodies and style are the only factors that separate “Boxes” from a set of b-sides or drafts from high-caliber artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and Burial. Lacking enthralling shifts in direction, sound and dynamics, the instrumentals on the record rarely reach beyond the category of the electronic ‘beat.’ Yorke isn’t creating anything complex or ambitious at this point; the small changes that occur over the course of “Boxes” tracks may be somewhat unpredictable but are never drastic or altogether attention-grabbing. It’s not simply a question of immediacy either. There is no hidden message, no slowly-revealed dynamic that makes “Boxes” anything more than it is at face value. It’s Thom Yorke singing over a DJ set crafted from original loops and effects.

To his credit, Thom’s strengths as a vocalist and songwriters sometimes crack through the unexciting surface. The previously mentioned track “The Mother Lode” boasts the record’s most engaging groove as well as its most dynamic song structure. The track operates on a simultaneously calming and danceable rhythmic backbone formed by gorgeous percussive piano, drum and vocal samples. It also noticeably shifts through several chord progressions which allow Yorke to realize several of the record’s most memorable vocal melodies. “Truth Ray” and “Nose Grows Some” similarly shine due to their melodic compatibility with Yorke’s vocals.

If nothing else, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes”is inescapably a Thom Yorke record, one that allows his physical and artistic voice to shine through. However, it’s still clear that Yorke is still finding his footing as a songwriter and producer in a genre which seems to undergo revolutionary changes every year. “Boxes” finds Yorke struggling to become a force within the genre he’s chosen to adopt. Thankfully, he’s already proven himself more than equipped to make that struggle worthwhile.