My favorite electronic music — Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Mezzanine, The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender, and almost anything by DJ Shadow — melds rhythm, melody and atmosphere and transports you in visceral, mysterious ways that are no less profound for being somewhat inscrutable. It’s mood music that transcends language or, rather, reduces language to one supporting part of the whole. In that way, it’s both radical and classic. It’s radical because it marks a departure from the basic tenets of modern pop songcraft, in which language and storytelling are generally at least equal partners with the music, and classic in that, well, it’s like classical music — symphonies for the modern ear . . . at its best, that is.
This spells trouble for me and Radiohead front man Thom Yorke’s electronic solo project The Eraser. That’s because despite Radiohead’s enthusiastic noodling, the band is firmly rooted in the verse-chorus-verse storytelling tenets of pop music. And Yorke is a guy in love with his words and his stories. Or in love with the idea that his words should be heard, clearly, in traditional ways — as lyrical melodies grafted onto music — no matter how solipsistic those words may be. The result on this bedroom set is mostly underwhelming and occasionally just annoying. The problem is twofold. One, because of the sparseness of the musical compositions, which rely on rote and repetitive piano or guitar motifs — thus, the underwhelming sensation — Yorke has never been heard more clearly. And two, without the adventurousness of his bandmates to cover his ass, he’s never seemed to have so little to say — thus, the annoyance. Take the song “Analyse,” for instance:
A self-fulfilling prophecy of endless possibility roll in reams across the street/In algebra, in algebra
There are enough of these clunky moments that I kept asking myself: Is he joking?
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Maybe Yorke’s never really had that much to say, and the legions, and they are legion, who pray at the altar of Radiohead and believe Yorke is some kind of digital-era sage have merely been bedazzled by the assumed grandeur of Radiohead’s music (though, for my money, they’ve been pumping the same well for a long, long time).
The Eraser feels like Radiohead, without the radio — all we’re getting is the head: the Thom Yorke head. And it just isn’t great head to spend time with. That’s not just because of his vaunted “darkness,” but more because the darkness isn’t a very interesting darkness. Things are fucked up, people are disappointing, time is running out, dark sides are being gone to, etc. It’s the basic yuppie-grade depression, navel-gazing whine of someone who has enough time on his hands to mull over whatever slings and arrows have been tossed his way this week. Pretty yawnful.
To be fair, though, this is a highly intimate and personal project, and airing out some petty indulgences/grievances is well within Yorke’s rights. And the record has its moments — mostly the pretty, melodic ones, like “The Clock” and “Black Swan,” that sound the most like Radiohead’s more subdued efforts. I’m sure true believers will find something to love here, and there’s no denying Yorke’s falsetto can be a beautiful instrument — so long as you tune out what it’s saying. In general, though, The Eraser has the unprecedented effect of making me long for some new Radiohead.
THOM YORKE | The Eraser | XL Recordings