2006 August | Mojo
As Radiohead head off into pastures unknown, their stubborn mainman fights a rearguard action for their electronic incarnation. No bad thing, reckons Danny Eccleston.
It'a easy to be exasperated by Thom Yorke. He is, well, exasperating. Here he comes, the perennial student, convinced of his outsider status even as milk-men whistle his tunes. There he is again, the sniping misanthrope, pouring scorn on constructive efforts to change the world while he hunkers down with his laptop in deepest Devon, formulating conspiracy theories and fuming at Newsnight. The world is dumb and ghastly but only Thom has noticed - clever old Thom...
Then there is the work. Musical gold alchemised from the base elements of bad attitude and persecution mania, restless genius encapsulated in the transformation of his band at the turn of the last century from exquisite stadium guitar rockers into exquisite stadium electro rockers (with guitars). In 2006, the controversy surrounding Radiohead's exploration of the rhythmic and textural possibilities of keys and samples, and new preference for subtle, inching harmonic progressions over lurching rock rollercoasters seems absurd, but at the time it appeared baffling and brave. Would they be twice as big a band now if they'd continued on the path of OK Computer, or would that have led to insanity and destruction (and insane, destructive music)? That, too, would have been fun to watch, but not for Thom Yorke and Radiohead.
It's academic now The Synth Wars were fought, Radiohead survived and apparently thrived, and a detente between new and old methodologies emerged on their last album, 2003's excellent Hail To The Thief. After all that, The Eraser (not the first Radiohead solo record - that's Jonny Greenwood's Bodysong from 2003) sounds like a throwback, a mopping-up exercise. Despite the odd acoustic element, it's a hushed, defiantly computerised work, of a piece with "Like Spinning Plates" or "Backdrifts", and you can imagine how squeamish his band (not all of whom embraced the Yorke-driven Kid A agenda with identical fervour) might have been about turning these into Radiohead songs. So it's been left to Yorke, and Yorke alone, to finish them.
You'd call it an indulgence if it weren't so sublime. At least five tracks would jockey for position on a 2-CD Radiohead best-of, and the rest of it sustains the mood, which is haunting rather than desperate or depressing, like a photo of a child's lost shoe in the street. Moreover, what could have been ultra-autistic has been coaxed out of its shell (producer Nigel Godrich must take credit for that) and the strengths of the Yorke version of electronica become clear. Melody, personality; context: he can't help but bring all three to the party, and it's enough to make you forget those dated, boring Autechre dirges he reputedly admires or the fact that, in 2006, electronica is a busted flush and hasn't produced a truly great album since Four Tet's Pause.
Because like all great music, The Eraser renders its instrumentation beside the point. It begins on a note of possible self-mockery, delivered in syncopated, Prince-like falsetto ("Please excuse me but I've got to ask/Are you only being nice/Because you want something?") and quickly blossoms into a quiet riot of minimalist, jazz-flavoured chordology, bravura singing and varied, but invariably troubled narrators. It’s the most emotionally upfront music he's made since - oh, let's say it - "Creep".
A third of The Eraser looks out into the world and - predictably - hates what it sees. "The Clock" is its baldest message song, a twitching countdown to Armageddon ("Time is running out for us"). "And It Rained All Night" heralds a second Flood, where "the worms come out to see what's up" and drumstick clicks chatter like skeletons. It's modern protest song at its best, a Bosch-like bestiary of samples conjuring a world gone wrong while Yorke's observer fidgets, eschewing smug "I told you so"s for expressions of vain hope and admissions of complicity.
Always in Yorke's songs the horror within is greater than the horror without. In "Black Swan", a brilliant electro-blues with the deceptively soft, bimbling beats characteristic of the album as a whole, its narrator is a tortured humanist who notes how "people get crushed like biscuit crumbs and laid down in the bitumen", but it's his terror, not the 4th Form political theory, that's interesting. Climbing into character with suspiciously little effort, Yorke shifts into his Billie Holiday gear, where gravity makes the effort of singing unbearable, almost impossible.
Minus Radiohead's adornments, The Eraser showcases Yorke's ability to shape-change in all its peerlessness. "Skip Divided" introduces his most alienated anti-hero yet, a withered obsessive who longs bitterly to connect meaningfully with another but is doomed to disappointment. Around him, sampled mouth music groans and shivers, a murderous miasma of desire and despair, while Yorke makes himself harsh, drugged and dangerous, like Howard Devoto on Magazine's "Permafrost". Not for the first time you wonder where he gets all this from, this constant, vivid empathy with the tortured and powerless. Strip away the talent, ambition, education, young family and brilliant band and maybe this is how he feels too. Tragic if it's true, uncannily effective as art if it isn't.
It's what makes the stand-out track, "Atoms For Peace", such an agonising marvel: a psychic showdown between "wriggling, twiggling" worms (again with the worms already!) and loved-up self-help mottos over near-jaunty, static-crackling beats. "No more talk about the old days/It's time for something great!" cheerleads Yorke. "No more leaky holes in your brain/And no false starts... " Then the ecstatic pay-oft; rendered in spiralling Sandy Denny whalesong: "I'll be OK!" A single synth chord rises and modulates infinitesimally, a faux-Hooky high-bass solo creaks disarmingly and all the antidepressants kick in at once. It's ridiculously moving.
What all this means for the future sound of Radiohead is moot. The Eraser is, one suspects, the last gasp or Indian Summer of Tron Yorke: Man-Machine, and wherever the Oxonian five-piece go now - however slowly and crab-like - it'll be somewhere different, somewhere less electronic. What it says about Thom: A Suitable Case For Treatment is nearly as obscure. The Eraser is less crabbed, cryptic or violently bitter than Hail To The Thief - think "Myxomatosis", or "A Punchup At A Wedding" - and is often more satisfying for that. But a healthier, wiser or more enlightened Yorke has yet to reveal himself, neither in life nor in art. Perhaps we'd better not hold our breath.
Meanwhile, The Eraser plots a new course for becalmed electronica (songs, now there's an idea... ) and offers the existential consolation that however unhappy you might feel about your job, clothes or the world in general, there’s always someone worse off than yourself. And his name is probably Thom Yorke.