Album Review: Thom Yorke's 'Tomorrows Modern Boxes,' and the Politics of BitTorrent

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In the wake of EDM's explosion into pop culture, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has sort of taken up the role of its unofficial elder statesman.

It's not like he resorts to, or takes credit for, the gimmicky bass drops of acts like Skrillex and Flux Pavilion or anything like that (he was pushing the electronic envelope when those guys were in middle school), but it seems almost as if he's immensely proud of the more, erm, high-brow electronic scene (think burial, James Blake, Flying Lotus, etc.) that he helped cultivate and is quite unapologetic about not only incorporating these more contemporary influences into his own work but also lending his talents to a whole host of rising acts.

Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, Thom Yorke's second full-length solo effort (and first in almost 10 years), nails this EDM-for-the-critics aesthetic pretty well; it's danceable, but also sounds ghostly and disembodied.

There's plenty of ambiance, stereo panning, studio trickery, "bleeps," and "bloops;" if you've ever heard Kid A before, you'll have a pretty good idea of what Tomorrow's Modern Boxes has in store for you and, unfortunately, if you have, all listening to Tomorrow's Modern Boxes will do is make you want to put Kid A back on.?

It's not that Tomorrow's Modern Boxes is a bad album, because it isn't.

Hell, it's not even a boring album. It's just that - had Radiohead not already released Kid A's b-sides (2001's Amnesiac) - the most apt descriptor of the songs found on Tomorrow's Modern Boxes would be, well, Kid A b-sides.

The theatrics of the release too will overshadow the songs themselves. Tomorrow's Modern Boxes was released via BitTorrent, marking the first time an artist of such a high-profile has released an album in such a way.

Yorke wrote a letter to fans expelling his decision. Here's a portion of it:

??If [the album's release] works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work.
Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves.
Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.

If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done.
The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or 'cloud' malarkey.

Judging by this, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes should perhaps be cut some slack because the politics of its release seem almost as important as the music itself. Not that this all isn't worth discussing, it's just kind of a shame considering some of the tracks here show immense potential.

Midway though lead single and opener "A Brain in a Bottle," Yorke unleashes just a flash of a telephone-EQ'd sample that clashes with the overall feel of the production so jarringly that it's hair-raising.

"The Mother Lode" features a kick-and-vocal dynamic that begs for a less-repetitive change in context.?

From a reviewing standpoint, it's hard not to ask: with this sounding so much like a retread of better albums that Yorke has been involved with, is there really any point for its existence? But the big-picture implications of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes are exciting, not that they're revolutionary - they're just a further blow to the distinctly fan/artist-averse business model of labels and now, iTunes, who have just accomplished the seemingly-impossible feat of making the American consumer hate free shit with that U2 stunt.