Six years on from its release, ‘Kid A’ occupies a unique place in Radiohead’s discography. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the moment they learnt to fly without being weighed down by rock’n’roll’s leaden corpse, or the day they cast off the guitars and drifted up their own collective arsehole. However, 2001’s ‘Amnesiac’ and 2003’s ‘Hail To The Thief’ saw them step back from its icy brink, but its influence has remained – a phantom presence of synthesizers, mechanical rhythms, and eerie, inhuman dislocation.
Far from being a full-band effort, though, one always got the feeling it was Thom Yorke who was the likely architect of Radiohead’s electronic manifesto. A keen fan of Warp Records acts like Plaid and Autechre, it was Yorke who seemed keenest to shed instruments and fling himself across the stage to the synthetic rush of ‘Idioteque’. Given Jonny Greenwood’s recent revelation to NME that he was playing “more guitar than ever”, perhaps it was inevitable that Thom would look for a way to vent his urges.
What began, then, as a simple soundtrack job – ‘Black Swan’ scores the closing credits to Richard Linklater’s upcoming sci-fi flick A Scanner Darkly – slowly grew into ‘The Eraser’. First things first: this isn’t a ‘solo’ record (“I don’t wanna hear that word,” writes Thom). This, however, isn’t simply Thom being difficult. Nine tracks arranged by Thom with long-term Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, plus occasional instrumentation – albeit warped, filtered, digitally twisted out of shape – culled from Radiohead sessions, ‘The Eraser’ is less a splinter project than a chance for Thom to play dictator with the master tapes; to rewire Radiohead into his own vision.
Forget electronics though: the first thing ‘The Eraser’ reminds you of is just how remarkable, how utterly unique Thom’s voice is. Freed from Radiohead’s titanium heaviness, here it soars unimpeded. “The more you try to erase me”, he sings, over the washed-out pianos and chirruping data feeds of the title track, “The more that I appear”. It’s quickly clear that we’re light years from the petulant grunge urchin that gnashed his way through ‘Creep’.
Musically, the ‘Kid A’ acolytes will be on familiar ground. There’s nothing here as immediately gripping as ‘Idioteque’, but that song’s hallmarks – tractor-beam synths, hissy percussion, mechanical propulsion – form this record’s backbone. Nevertheless, ‘The Eraser’ works best when crisp digital meets live grit: scything bass undercuts the shimmering ‘And It Rained All Night’, while ‘The Clock’ finds Thom singing, “you throw coins in a wishing well” atop droning guitar reminiscent of US freak-folkers Six Organs Of Admittance.
Social awkwardness? Romantic obsession? A stinging critique of Tony Blair? It’s an irony that, as Yorke’s lyrics have improved, they’ve become more cryptic. That’s why ‘Harrowdown Hill’ is this album’s key moment. Apparently dating back to the ‘Hail To The Thief’ sessions, it boasts an outwardly innocuous title, but it’s the patch of wilderness on the outskirts of Oxford that gained grim significance in 2003 when police discovered the corpse of Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert whose name was leaked to the media by Blair’s chief of spin, Alastair Campbell. Out of context, the lyrics are Thom’s usual enigma; in context, they’re his most explicitly political to date; the last testament of a man hounded to his death by foes unspoken and unknowable. “Don’t walk the plank like I did/You will be dispensed with”, declares Thom, over staccato twangs of live bass and grey sheets of synthesizer. “Did I fall or was I pushed?”, he asks, repeatedly. And then, finally, the sharpness fades for a final coda: “It’s a slippery, slippery slope/I feel myself slipping in and out of consciousness”, before a guitar materialises, ringing out in ironic salute. It’s not just an album highlight, but a key moment in Radiohead’s discography.
Like ‘Kid A’, ‘The Eraser’ will split Radiohead fans. Some will mourn its lack of viscera; its coldness; its reluctance to rock. But it’s yet another revealing glimpse into Yorke’s cryptic inner-world, and one that has the courage not to hide its political message in code. ‘Kid B’? Yeah, OK – but Radiohead will never make another album like it, and as a twin, it’s every bit the equal.