|Thom Yorke - The Eraser|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2006|
Though multitudes of artists have found creative fortune after leaving their respective bands, the rock canon is littered with proof that those who leave a true creative democracy (as is Radiohead, by all accounts) generally don’t flourish outside of that unique creative dynamic. Does anyone outside of the graybeards at Rolling Stone really think Mick Jagger has any business making more solo albums?
How many people care, or even remember, that Roger Daltrey, Ray Davies and Robert Plant have solo albums on their resumes? Of course, successful solo careers can result when bands dominated by one creative personality wave goodbye (Lou Reed, John Fogerty, Brian Wilson), and there are other exceptions to the rule, but it’s harder still to think of any artist who has released an exceptional solo album while still part of a band recognized as the standard bearers for their genre, as Radiohead ostensibly is. Obviously, Thom Yorke is playing against the odds with The Eraser.
For the most part, if you took the quieter, more heavily processed tracks off of Kid A and Amnesiac, you’d have a fairly good idea of what The Eraser sounds like. Nearly every track is founded upon some combination of skittering and popping beats paired with eerily droning synths and Yorke’s dourly somber vocals. As such, these are comparably simple tracks, constructed out of a fairly limited number of parts, from the fading piano strikes and layered humming of the title track to the one-chord groove made of mechanistic keyboards and vocal tics in the darkly enveloping “The Clock.” Still, there is nothing straightforward or simple about the way Yorke constructs his arrangements, as he consistently employs odd time signatures and pushes and twists his melodies into unpredictable formations. As always, his melodies seem only loosely tethered to the arrangements he has constructed, as when he finds a strangely calming, almost reassuring vocal melody for “Atoms for Peace,” using roundly playful synth tones as a backdrop for his whirling falsetto to twirl the melody ever upward.
As a writer, Yorke has sharpened his focus on more domestic concerns, taking a half step away from the paranoia and apocalyptic scope of Radiohead albums. “You have tried your best to please everyone/But it isn’t happening,” he intones over slippery bass lines and plaintive guitar chords on the brooding “Black Swan,” creating a self-deluded protagonist who goes through life not knowing why he’s unhappy. “’And this is fucked up, fuck-ed up,” he says, drawing out each syllable on the chorus. “Please excuse me, but I’ve got to ask/Are you only being nice because you want something?” he asks an unidentified antagonist on the title track, and the interpersonal nature of the interactions on the album only make the existential angst sting more. As before, Yorke revels in voicing the threats of his tormenter, sinisterly playing with his characters in song after song. “You will be dispensed with/When you become inconvenient,” he warns over an unexpectedly funky guitar hook on “Harrowdown Hill,” then offers “I’m coming home to make it alright/So dry your eyes” as the melody turns more darkly meditative. Powerlessness, alienation, confusion, self-doubt – all the normal concerns common in his songwriting are present here. The only difference is that these songs are more personally felt, less globally concerned and more plaintively conversational.
As a tunesmith, Yorke is in fine form, still creating songs that are dolefully and hauntingly beautiful, none more than the eerily rising and falling “Analyse.” With clopping piano chords and stuttering beats lying underneath Yorke’s exhausted vocals and depiction of a sad life of routine, he coos and hums “It gets you down/You’re just playing a part/There’s no time to analyze,” over a rising tide of icy keyboards. Similarly, the manipulated vocals and clunky, leaden beats of “Skip Divided” allow Yorke to experiment with a deeper vocal register, his baritone murmurs made even more menacing by the falsetto moans that float above them. There are a few moments where he seems to be pushing into new territory, but the way in which he consistently finds new and ingenious ways to match melody and meter – especially with such humble sonic pieces – is The Eraser’s greatest accomplishment.
The fact that Yorke is no longer surrounded by his bandmates is most obvious in the general lack of guitar histrionics. These songs mostly start out quiet, gain momentum by their midpoints, then settle back down into solemn grooves. There is very little of the dramatic push and pull of Radiohead albums, very few swelling crescendos or multi-passage song suites. First and foremost, these are laptop pop songs – albeit distinctly sober ones – and they are defined more by understatement than by the brilliant sprawl of the records made by Yorke’s band.
Confusingly, Yorke has insisted over and over that The Eraser is not a solo album but simply a release that he did without the other Radiohead guys, drawing a distinction that seems designed to soothe fears that the band might be breaking up, while simultaneously lowering the expectations for an album that he says is little more than a set of songs he didn’t think fit the band. He really shouldn’t be so coy. At the end of the day, The Eraser is a startlingly solid release, solo album or not. Not only is it only a small step below the output of his band, but it also allows a rare insight into the creative process of one of pop music’s most engaging and enigmatic personas. The Eraser is Thom Yorke’s sonic sketchbook, and it sounds pretty much exactly like what you’d expect from him. If you’re already a Radiohead fan, it’s hard to imagine that you’d be in any way disappointed.
Interestingly, for a Nigel Godrich-produced release, The Eraser has few of the hallmarks of his expansive soundscapes and spacey flourishes. Instead, the mix is centered on a lo-fi assemblage of fuzzy keyboards and plipping and plopping beats, with the stray reverb-drenched guitar or bass thrown in for color. Most surprisingly, Yorke’s vocals are presented more clearly and with less reverb than ever before, giving the album a glistening pop feel that belies its generally cloudy textures.