It’s been three years since the last one, but you all remember the drill, right? The blog post/press release/i n t r i g u i n g l y-formatted tweet goes live, announcing that Thom Yorke will be releasing a new album approximately 20 minutes from now, using some revolutionary delivery method intended to serve as the mile-wide asteroid to an unsuspecting music industry. Social media promptly goes into meltdown as the opinion pieces proliferate, while critics race against time and each other to deliver the first – usually fawning – verdict. You have to hand it to him: the man knows how to launch an album to maximum chatter, but sometimes you long for him to do something genuinely unexpected, like, say, float a 30ft statue of himself down the Thames.
Increasingly, that sentiment applies to the music, too. Gone are the days of Yorke – or Radiohead, for that matter – surprising you with anything other than his choice of business model. Give or take a few degrees of melody and immediacy, you know what you’re getting before the files have even finished downloading: spare, minimalist synths, scattershot lyrics and brittle, skittering beats which converge into loosely-defined songs that make ‘Kid A’ sound like ‘Slippery When Wet’ by comparison. It’s not necessarily a criticism – ‘Interference’ is a fine example of how he’s able to marry austere electronica with beguiling, often beautiful melodies – but it does serve to remind you that ‘progressiveness’ is a relative term. Not so long ago, musicians like Yorke strived to push the artistic envelope; now it seems the focus has shifted towards finding the most ethical and efficient way to mail it.
The pros and cons of selling an ‘album’ (his inverted commas, not mine) through BitTorrent are for someone else to get into, however. The hullaballoo over these guerrilla releases can often detract from the music itself, making it appear secondary to the circumstances of its release. The lacklustre ‘King of Limbs’ might have deserved that fate but ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’, thankfully, does not.
That said, it’s hardly love at first listen. ‘A Brain In A Bottle’ is a claustrophobic opener, boxing you in with oscillations of wobbly bass and the unsettling caw of what sounds like an electronic seagull. “Why hast thou forsaken us?” asks Yorke, and you can imagine the perennially-disappointed ‘OK Computer’ crowd throwing their hands up in exasperation and replying “You tell us.” Yet across repeat plays, the album’s charms begin to unfurl: ‘Guess Again!’ is built around a looping piano line that recalls ‘Pyramid Song’ and gives the listener the feeling of tumbling in slow-motion down the Penrose steps, amid ominous warnings that “as one door shuts, another opens”. On ‘Truth Ray’, meanwhile, the cold, inhuman aloofness of the music is offset by Yorke’s quietly-horrified murmurs of “Oh my god, oh my god,” and a melody which lingers like a restless spirit.
‘The Mother Lode’ is the unquestionable centrepiece: six superlative minutes of light and shade whose clubby piano chords evoke an end-of-night chemical rush, albeit one filtered through the thought-process of a man for whom euphoria has often seemed anathema. By way of penitence, we get ‘There Is No Ice (For My Drink)’, an overlong techno workout that feels like a homework assignment and whose title must surely be self-parodic. Still, that’s Thom Yorke’s modern box for you. We all know what’s in it, and no-one would argue that it isn’t worth opening. But for the time being, he’s quite happy thinking inside it, thank you very much.