Thom Yorke: The Original Sadboy
At his solo performance at Pitchfork Paris, we reflect on how 'Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes' is '808s & Heartbreaks' for the over-25s.
When Thom Yorke released Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes in August last year, his first solo effort in eight years, it was something of a premature birth. Unannounced and making very little eye contact, it had about as much anticipation and build up as a spilled drink. Despite becoming a near revelation with over 4.5 million downloads in less than six months, it lolled around the critics to the sound of 3/5s and 7/10s. Pitchfork themselves, the hosts of the Paris music festival where I’m about to watch Yorke play live, gave it a middling 6.8.
They might seem trivial at times, but there is a powerful value to the feature length interview in music journalism, and its role in giving emotional context to a piece of art, so people can understand and connect with it on a level beyond its sheer musicality. Like, say, how hearing the new album of Yorke’s kindred spirit Bjork was an uplifting and overpowering experience after reading her conversation with Jessica Hopper about the psychological backdrop of its conception. Or how Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi-Love slowly oozed a real story about the aftermath of polyamory. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes—TMB now for short—didn’t just come without pomp, ceremony or interviews; it came with a determined unapproachability to it, it was the lone book reader at the pub that shuns the room, not looking up once until it’s time to leave.
The words that accompanied the release didn’t help; more like an instructional sales pitch than an unfolding story. “It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something the general public can get its head around,” read the charmless statement, alluding to the BitTorrent method it would be distributed via. The only context that came with the record were three paragraphs on its holding webpage, but not a single one described anything about its themes, where it came from, what it’s about, when it was written, or even how. Instead, they laboriously described the packaging it came in, to an almost comical level. The most intimate and poetic detail Yorke revealed to us about TMB was that the bag it comes in “is printed with neon green on both sides, and has a resealable grip closure.”
No wonder then, with the billing suggesting that tonight’s performance will comprise exclusively of TMB material, that the audience awaiting him is a still lake reflection of his aloofness. Some Brits near me mumble about Latitude Festival back in August, where thousands flocked early from Portishead to flood into Yorke’s secret set, climbing trees just to get a view. But what they then saw was an unprepared experiment that went quite quietly wrong, or as The Guardian called it: “shambolic.”
There are some Yorke fans—Yorkies?—here in the Grande Halle de la Villette, for sure, looking placid yet hyped, but most of the expressionless faces I’m seeing are sheepishly awaiting something that will inevitably be a bit introspective and noodly; a bit unfathomably electronic and hyper unsociable; a bit disappointing and shit; a bit I might go back to the bar actually, do you want another beer? Is he going to play “Karma Police”? Still, they are here in droves, nonetheless, totalling the biggest crowd I’ve seen at Pitchfork Paris. Whatever you think about Yorke, the Oxfordshire man bun, his status as a tortured soul and melancholic experimentalist is of superstar level. He brings intrigue, an oddity; he is the original sadboy.
The techies glide around onstage like bearded drones, constructing three clean white Kraftwerk-esque lecterns, and they’ve barely had a chance to leave when Yorke swans straight on stage to a cheer; punctual and decidedly pumped. With a mixture of rigid offbeat jolts and hands that slice patterns in the air like a psychotic retired conductor instructing an orchestra that isn’t there anymore, he beckons the skittering beats of some old material; “The Clock” from The Eraser. And then comes “Brain in a Bottle”, the first track from TMB, with synths that the grime world would call “icy,” his delicate and glassy voice so enmeshed in the electronics around it that it sounds like the most exquisite Logic plugin you’ve never heard.
The thing about TMB is, 15 months and countless listens on, I think it might actually be one of the most underrated albums of Yorke’s entire artistic output. On the face of it, it does feel like a bit of a locked door: impenetrable soundscapes, endlessly looped beats, cryptic lyrics, song titles like “Guess Again!” that seem to be directly taunting the confused listener, and a revolutionary sales concept that totally overshadowed its actual content.
But with a little leap of faith, the monotonous beats became hypnotic, the digital winter soundscapes become painfully beautiful, and Yorke’s lyrics eventually open that door, revealing a risky and confessional room full of paranoia, anxiety, neurosis, and loneliness; a life as a guy, a father, an artist, an aging human flesh bag, and the rest.
Many will be thinking, “Thom Yorke singing sad stuff? Aye, newsflash.” But there is a difference between Thom Yorke sad and conceptual (Radiohead), Thom Yorke sad and political (Atoms for Peace), and Thom Yorke sad and also, by the way, here is my concentrated soul and where it is in life right now for all of you to have a look at if you give so much of a a shit (Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes). This album is essentially 808s & Heartbreaks for the over 25s. And when Yorke’s separation from his lifelong partner of 23 years was announced three months ago, as something that many had known for some time, a cold record with very little context and no interviews seemed to finally have a skeleton key.
Maybe TMB was written in the depths of his impending separation, or maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with it at all—we’ll never know if Thom never tells us, and when you consider that two of his last major interviews before this album came out have been with award-winning author Will Self and Bond boy Daniel Craig, you can safely assume that he cares little for the poking inquiries of the average music journalist. But either way, behind the locked door, there is something arrestingly man-screaming-alone-in-a-dark-room about this album.
It’s a notion that visually resonates with the sight on stage tonight. Yorke is joined by two others, Nigel Godrich to his left and visual artist Tarrik Barri to his right, but there is no doubt that he is performing this alone. The faces of his two colleages barely peer up once; pointed downwards, bathed in the glow of their MacBooks, like two anonymous passengers too engrossed in their screens to take notice of the preacher on the night bus shouting down the aisles.
The rattlesnake beat and Angelo Badalamenti style piano chords of “Guess Again” rise up into brief optimism only for a second, before they tumble back down into a forest-like darkness. The song itself, a distant orphan of Radiohead's "Pyramid Song”, pictures a man crouched around his children, trying to protect them from the dangers that lurk outside. “All of my nightmares/Are in the garden” he sings, his live vocals making the imagery visceral, you can see the family petrified in the living room corner as the beast taps on the window. The fact the vocal is written just beneath his natural register makes it feel all the more insecure.
And there is something incredibly dramatic and poignant during “Truth Ray”, in hearing a line as heavy, direct and unsettling as “I’ve lost everything” ghosting across the beat. You don’t get much less cryptic than “I’ve lost everything.”
But it isn’t all heavy heavy. When Yorke and co are attuned to each other, which they clearly weren’t yet at Latitude, TMB lends itself hard to being played live. Clocking in at only 38 minutes, the album is basically a digital blueprint, a join-the-dots exercise, and they relish in demolishing certain songs and reconstructing them, but with a flowing rhythmic groove, a visceral ~funk~, one word I did not expect to consider tonight. The live version of “Mother Lode”, for instance, rises from the ashes of how it is on track, and the mutation is an atmospheric UK garage beast.
Yet as I look around, the many faces of those that looked sheepish and uninterested to begin with, still look quite the same. This performance has not converted the masses, despite its fluidity. Yorke comes out for an encore and plays “Default”, the monstrous and danceable first single from his Atoms for Peace project, and the wider room now does start to move and groove. But the song feels almost novelty in comparison to the confessions that have come before, like the comedian that insulates against against embarrassment by following any emotional revelations with a smart and conclusive one liner.
When you chop and slash through the appendages of TMB: its distracting distribution furore, its difficult first listen, and its lack of any context, you can understand why they all exist. These are protective walls built around what is a dark place. Without these partitions up on the live stage, the album reveals itself completely, and the reasons they exist becomes understandable.
This is Thom Yorke the purist, but maybe too pure for some.
You can follow Joe on Twitter.