A facet of Radiohead’s enigma that lingers far beyond the music is the accompanying artwork that adorns each cover. From In Rainbows’ brightly lit explosion to Kid A’s jarring white triangular mountains, no one could better grasp the concept’s Radiohead instills visually than the group themselves. Thom Yorke’s curveball of an album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, announced upon its release, continues this trend, with a Sci-Fi-esque, hole-ridden surface loomed over by a geometric shape that sports a lime-green tinge to match Yorke’s name. The apocalyptic overtones are obvious, as grey washes over any remaining color, leaving Yorke’s own existence to spark glow into the gleaming. The hole’s seem structured, existing with purpose, as a pre-caution for humanity to bury their heads into their modern boxes. This seems to be, as nothing can ever be certain with Yorke, the concept of his latest release. A bleak record foretelling a world in which the ending has been foretold. The fear, anxiety, and dread that’s largely featured in Yorke’s lyrics has brutishly forced its way into the production, as tremors, shivers, and quakes sheen across the 8 tracks. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes isn’t an earth-shattering record, it’s what’s left of a ground that’s already been torn apart, fractured by our wrongful decisions, leaving a quiet presence that seamlessly melds organic with mechanical, containing a man overcome with emotion pouring out over noises entirely devoid of it.
You know, I could be over-thinking all of this. But in reality, that’s the beauty of Yorke’s music, it’s captivatingly vague, nothing obvious remains, it’s music in its purest art form. Ever since 2000’s Kid A, Yorke’s sound has remained consistent, dangling on the edge of so many genres, refusing to latch on to any. When you think Amnesiac clings to ambient electronica, ‘Life In A Glasshouse’ blares down the doors with a rendition of a 50’s blues record, complete with trumpets, pianos and flutes. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes largely refrains from deviating off Yorke’s foundation, despite remaining harrowingly deep, composed so tight-knit that oft-kilter sounds that spark up fuse themselves so elegantly within Yorke’s construct that they become one and the same. Take opener ‘A Brain In A Bottle,’ where, nearing the middle of the track, a poignant jolt billows, fluctuates, and rapidly zooms across the background, as if mapping out the geometric shape that dominates the cover. Rather than exterminating it, the track becomes enamored with it, revolving itself around the new commanding sound. These blimps are found extensively throughout the record, like blemishes finding renewed beauty in their ability to stand out. Unlike his previous releases, which sported the same level of desperation in tone but with a flair for eccentricity in the form of danceable grooves, this record remains at a consistent hum, never flinching from its resting place, always seeking refuge in the serene. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes values peace as a commodity worth seeking. Even the tracks that sparse themselves through movements, re-initializing IDM rituals, like ‘The Mother Lode’, come in cool, calm, and composed, not frantic nor alarming. The aforementioned track posits Yorke’s greatest vision here, mashing low-frequency bass thuds with swelling harp sections and echoing vocals fading in and out of consciousness. Much like how ‘The National Anthem’ could see an end of days, ‘The Mother Lode’ acts in much the same way, numb to the impending doom as “the last of war is coming.” ‘There Is No Ice’ continues this numbing sensation, as endless bass rattles harden themselves with Yorke repeating phrases in reverse, indecipherable to the human ear, before a delicate vintage piano creeks on by towards the end. All this points to Yorke’s fear of a dry planet, hinted at by the title, a sign of global warming caused by humanity. This song, and the following refrain ‘Pink Section,’ take obvious influence from Boards Of Canada, with stirring emotive abstractions that evoke imminent ruin.
Excluding Yorke’s avoidance of expanding musically, another falter of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes comes with these previously mentioned low points, which comprise the album to a muddled contraction of dreary gloom, hardly a surprising critique of Yorke as nearly every album he’s led focuses on these feelings. The foundering occurs with the repetition over the years where expectation becomes undeniable in proclaiming as album as overtly ‘sad.’ And this may truly be the most somber of them all, with a complete removal of high points, like a roller coaster cruising forward on ground-level in an effort to expose the state of our world, leaving the riders with a bitter taste in their mouths. That ride could give you a memory to ponder, but without a climb or drop to its name, it relegates itself to monotony. See ‘Guess Again!’ easily the most Radiohead-esque track here, which, while compressed with density, fails to progress past any conceivable checkpoint, relenting itself to merely simply existing. Even the title, with an exclamation point appended, comes off as ironic considering the track calls for nothing of the sort. There are other regrettable moments on Yorke’s second solo album, but thankfully, with only 8 tracks to its name, they never become over-bearing.
One thing an album with low variations usually succeeds in is consistency and connectivity, something Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes triumphantly flourishes with. The messages are clear and the sounds arraigned with the others in mind. This is best shown on the final three tracks, as ‘There Is No Ice’ flows imperceptively to ‘Pink Section’ which does the same to the closer ‘Nose Grows Some.’ It’s a beautiful trilogy, with the conclusion representing its strongest sentiment to the message at hand. An eloquent soliloquy that sees the distancing of Yorke and what appears to be a companion, uses a metaphor for their nose growing as the lies between the relationship builds and builds. With the progressive build-up, the softly-sung narration from Yorke, his most endearing on the piece, and the harmonizing backing vocals to complement him, ‘Nose Grows Some’ might be the album’s most compelling song, not shocking considering Radiohead’s track record with closers. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a captivating listen that sees Yorke perfecting his craft rather than expanding on it. The concept remains another take at viewing the world literally in the 21st century, complete with the ravaging despair that set the planet’s finale into grueling motion. There’s no light to be had here, the modern boxes, the holes we’ve dug for ourselves, seem to now be our only escape, one met with the music of earth slowly succumbing to brooding silence with Yorke standing as the calming voice easing us down.