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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Thom Yorke: The Eraser


1) The Eraser; 2) Analyse; 3) The Clock; 4) Black Swan; 5) Skip Divided; 6) Atoms For Peace; 7) And It Rained All Night; 8) Harrowdown Hill; 9) Cymbal Rush.

General verdict: A surprisingly poignant - and unexpectedly human-sounding - effort here. Sometimes low-key actually works better than all-out ambition.

I had not the slightest doubt that Thom Yorke's first solo album, recorded while the band was on temporary hiatus, would suck tremendously — most likely, thought I, it would be just like Hail To The Thief, but even more watery and with boring electronics replacing all the potentially cool guitar bits. I mean, at least Jonny Greenwood is supposedly this musical genius, influenced by everybody from Penderecki to Pythagoras; but Thom Yorke? He is merely a visionary whiner, and without Greenwood's substance (and occasional crunch), he is simply going to shower you in monotonous electronic tears until you feel like a short-circuited robot.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I discovered that The Eraser was... well, not exactly «nothing like that», but still quite far removed from my preconception. It is mostly electronic, yes, but it follows a relatively austere minimalistic path: most of the songs are based upon short samples (which makes sense, since Thom is not a great player), overdubbing is kept to a minimum, and vocals are generally mixed higher than on Radiohead records — so that, you know, there'd be no mistake about whose solo album this really is... Nigel Godrich's, of course!

Originally, Yorke planned the record to be completely instrumental, and it may have worked, because some of those minimalistic samples are actually moodier and more memorable than just about anything on Hail To The Thief. Eventually he gave in to Nigel's requests and wrote vocal tracks for all of them, turning the album into another thinly disguised sociopolitical protest rant in the process — but it's a good thing he did, because such tracks as ʽAtoms For Peaceʼ and ʽAnd It Rained All Nightʼ contain some of his most beautiful singing since OK Computer.

The music in general is at the same time more and less avantgardish here than on Kid A or Hail To The Thief. More, because, working in a bandless format and relying almost exclusively on sampling, Yorke is chained to this barebones approach that sometimes borders on Autechre: the songs are often little more than skeletons, consisting of 3-4-note bass riffs and rudimentarily programmed keyboards. But also less, because these skeletons seem to be a bit more traditional and conservative — made up in a language which clicks much easier with me than the language of Hail To The Thief. Take ʽAnd It Rained All Nightʼ, for instance: the combination of a small, humming, mildly paranoid, funky bass riff with a cloudy overlay of synthesizers actually does create the atmosphere of a never-ending rainy night — and against that background, Yorke's bitter-honey-dripping refrain of "I can see you, but I can never reach you..." sounds all the more desperate. It is, I think, one of the most effective displays of his «claustrophobic» personality.

This does not mean that a return to relatively natural simplicity will necessarily work in all cases. Things like the obsessively looped sample of Jonny Greenwood banging out two chords on a piano, used by Thom on the title track, might seem haunting to some and annoying to others — at the very least, if they work, they rather work on the same «symbolic» level of interpretation as most of post-Kid A Radiohead. But on the other hand, it is so nice to hear Yorke occasionally return to OK Computer stylistics — ʽAnalyseʼ is a tragic ballad with a clear and powerful vocal track, certainly not on the climactic level of ʽLuckyʼ, but at least sounding like a distress call from a sympathetic, if doomed, human being. And if there were more songs like ʽBlack Swanʼ (whose guitar-and-drums track is sampled from an old O'Brien / Selway bit recorded in 2000) on Amne­siac, my opinion of that record would have jumped up a few points — there is something deeply right in how that quietly noodling dark folk riff combines with Thom's quietly noodling "this is fucked up, fucked up" dark grumble of a chorus.

Do not get me wrong: I am not intentionally playing contrarian here, and by no means is The Eraser some sort of grossly underrated masterpiece that dwarfs Radiohead's entire 21st century catalog and refuses to be recognized as such by the hoi polloi just because they cannot stubbornly accept a Thom Yorke album over a Radiohead album. Substance-wise, it is a minor effort — essentially, just Thom quickly throwing together some lyrical lines over a bunch of samples extracted from Radiohead's bulging vaults. It is simply that I am glad to have discovered it, because it gives me a bit of insight into my own problems with latter day Radiohead — with The Eraser in hand, I am more convinced than ever before that these problems have to do with Radio­head constantly having to prove to the world that they are Radiohead, and as such they have to be completely different from anybody who is not Radiohead.

The Eraser has no such responsibility to itself: despite the complete lack of a band-style atmo­sphere, this is just a minor effort from Thom Yorke to put on record a bit of Thom Yorke. Notice how, despite all the electronic sounds, there are no sound effects on his voice whatsoever this time around? Well... it actually works. Yes, I am not ashamed to state that Thom Yorke sounds better when he is singing in his natural voice than when he is drowned in reverb, digitalized, auto-tuned, spun backwards, or disassembled into a million pieces and put back together again. Surprise, surprise: it actually makes his depressing songs more depressing, and his paranoid ramblings more paranoid.

In any case: if, for some reason, you have missed out on this record, don't — it is an absolute must for a Radiohead fan, and a curious curio for those of us who think Radiohead might have gone way over their radioheads after catching the Millennium bug. And I definitely prefer it over most of Jonny Greenwood's soundtracks, which is pretty much the equivalent of saying that, whether I like it or not, Radiohead is still Thom Yorke first and Jonny Greenwood second.


  1. THE ONLY SOLITAIRE READERSHIP: Golly gee, I sure wish George Starostin would do something about that unsightly yellow font on the general verdict!
    FINGER ON THE MONKEY'S PAW: (curls inward, turns periwinkle)

  2. George I hope I represent the silent majority of your readership when I say that your writing is terrific, the font color isn’t a huge issue, and it would be okay by me if people would shut the fuck up about it.

    1. There is a silent majority on this blog, and it really doesn't mind highlighting text once in a while

    2. This text is perfectly legible, highlighted or not.

    3. The color scheme is perfect now, there is no need to highlight anything.

    4. Agreed -- there were legitimate complaints before, but the combination of the light blue background and the bolded font seems to have done the trick.

  3. George, as a lay fan of your linguistic work (and that of your great father), it's a great pleasure to read your record reviews. I may not always agree with your conclusions, but I'm 100 percent behind the passion and thoughtfulness you put into each review. You sort of remember the first rule of reviewing: leave the reader with some idea of how the music sounds. Thank you for every moment you devote to the music.

  4. The label ("Radiohead") shouldn't be "Thom Yorke"? Jonny Greenwood got his own label, why not Yorke?