Its title and somewhat puzzling distribution method point obsessively toward the future, but neither’s enough to fool the discerning fan: Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a throwback to nearly a decade prior. Remember the summer of 2006? Radiohead found itself in the midst of a lengthy dry recording spell, then Yorke beat back the boredom of inactivity with a claustrophobic solo release.
This time, the surprise is in the release mechanics: Yorke placed Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes online Friday via BitTorrent with little more than a cryptic tweet’s warning and heralded it as a means of “bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.” Contained within are eight glitchy, laptop-fresh compositions that perhaps inevitably take their cues more from “The Gloaming” and “Like Spinning Plates” than anything on the last two Radiohead records. If not a direct companion piece to 2006’s The Eraser, Boxes, with its pretty but familiarly Yorkeian textures, is of a remarkably similar temperament and function: It doesn’t exactly contain hints of where the next Radiohead album is headed, but it does illuminate how Thom Yorke and longtime co-conspirator Nigel Godrich like to spend their free time.
Still, even by the standards of The King Of Limbs and last year’s Atoms For Peace outing, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a particularly muted, inward-facing set of songs. Opener “A Brain In A Bottle” bubbles to life with some old-school oscillator effects and a stuttering beat, though Yorke is mostly content to add and subtract toy-like squiggles from the mix while moaning sweet incomprehensible nothings. (This should be the disclaimer: Boxes, like The Eraser before it, is a headphones-only record; otherwise, why bother?) “Interference” opens like a mumbled Thom Yorke love song—“We stare into each other’s eyes / Like jack dogs, like ravens,” the singer intones—though its chilly synth pads and chillier chorus refrain (all together now: “I don’t have the right / To interfere / To interfere”) power down after an underwhelming two and a half minutes.
Boxes’ spiraling, beat-heavy drifts do frequently intersect with Yorke’s knack for stunning melodic figures, particularly near the album’s midsection. “The Mother Lode” pairs fluttering, Orb-like waves of techno with one of the artist’s best vocal melodies this side of Limbs’ “Codex,” while “Truth Ray” is a woozy, minimalist banger. “Oh my God / Oh my God,” Yorke repeats on the latter, though with a quiet, restrained sense of dread that sums up the record’s tone rather neatly. It’s followed by a meandering, seven-minute looping workout oddly titled “There Is No Ice (For My Drink),” though the subsequent closer, “Nose Grows Some,” is eerie and sublime.
Fans frustrated by Yorke’s stuffy excursions down the laptop rabbit hole tend to regard them as evidence of how he needs his Radiohead bandmates with their drum sets and guitars, though that’s not necessarily correct. The singer is, of course, an accomplished pianist and multi-instrumentalist himself. He has chosen to embrace electronica in uncompromising fashion, and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes likely sounds just the way he and Godrich would like it to sound.
Flashes of brilliance aside, the result sounds an awful lot like something Yorke dashed off to pass the time before delving into the new Radiohead album. That’s fine, really. It’s enough to help us pass the time before a new Radiohead record, too.