Into the Cupboard: Thom Yorke Goes Solo

In The Sacred Wood T.S. Eliot wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal…. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” On The Eraser, the nine-song album from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke due in July, Yorke does not imitate, he steals, and for many listeners this thievery will provoke the cry, “All hail to the thief.”

As Yorke admits of his first solo album, “Inevitably it is more beats and electronics.” Most every Radiohead b-side in the last several years, from “Worrywort” to “Where Blubirds Fly”, has been a Yorke project bearing the trademark beats and electronics that betray his longtime affection for Warp Records artists such as Autechre and Boards of Canada. Over time Yorke has internalized these influences. However, the album immediately rebuffs Yorke idolaters, both in its cover imagery and lyrics. Yorke himself has said, “I wanted to work on my own. I just wanted to see what it would be like.” These words should come as no surprise to longtime Radiohead fans, especially those who have seen Yorke’s near-breakdowns in Grant Gee’s 1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy. Late in the film, Yorke contemplates aloud backstage to Ed O’Brien, “I feel we should get out while the going’s good.” Gee follows this scene with a shot of Yorke singing “The Tourist”, voicing what the film’s audience is thinking: “Hey man, slow down.”

The Eraser
(XL, 2006)

Since 1998 Yorke has slowed down. Eight years on, his public persona is fitter, happier, more productive — as numerous interviews attest — but Radiohead’s music is no less haunted, no less haunting. The ghosts caught on tape now, however, project less the anxiety that anonymous characters might feel — “No alarms and no surprises please” — and declare more the anxieties troubling Yorke’s own increasingly sensitive political conscience: “Your alarm bells, they should be ringing.” Moving from first person to second, we’re further in, not farther away.

Of all Yorke’s work to date, The Eraser takes us farthest in, exposing just how much Radiohead depends on Yorke, and Yorke on Radiohead. Since “Creep”, the image of tormented frontman has tended to highlight Yorke as leader and overshadow the band’s fundamentally collaborative method of music making. What this album proves, however, and openly acknowledges is the sheer impossibility of Yorke going it alone. The cover for Thom Yorke’s solo album is a print entitled Cnut by Stanley Donwood from his London Views series of linoleum cuts. Cnut looks like an unintentional-intentional misspelling of “cunt”, but it is also a variant spelling of Canute, a Danish king who ruled over England in the years prior to the Norman invasion. Donwood himself explains as much in a June 2, 2006, e-mail to his mailing list, adding that Canute was the king “who may or may not have been advised by courtiers that his abilities included being able to halt the tide. Cnut memorably failed to arrest the inexorable lunar pull, thereby proving any number of platitudes about how our many glorious rulers have gigantically fucked up over the centuries.”

Canute, then, is an ambiguous double-edged symbol. Does Cnut depict a mysterious and Kafkaesque bureaucrat in a black coat, face hidden by a hat, who truly believes he wields elemental power? The waters seem to be held back by the figure. Or is the figure depicted in all his arrogance thinking he put the weather and the world to rights? Or is the figure caught amid failure, proving his flatterers wrong? The Canute myth Donwood retells has as its lesson the difficulty of listening to others — the courtiers — and the limits of individual power. The beauty of Yorke’s album’s rises, battered but beautiful, from this conflict between we and I, between Radiohead and Yorke.

The album feels built with headphones and ProTools rather than composed, made by Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich from some preexisting materials — a Radiohead album made without Radiohead. In a message from W.A.S.T.E to Radiohead fan sites, Yorke writes, “Nigel produced and arranged it . I wrote and played it. The elements have been kicking round now for a few years and needed to be finished and I have been itching to do something like this for ages. It was fun and quick to do.” As Robert Everett-Green notes in The Globe and Mail, “It took just seven weeks to put The Eraser together — a stroll in the park compared with some of Radiohead’s grueling studio marathons.” But Everett-Green misses a striking difference: Radiohead’s studio marathons, if they can be called that, result in nothing less than soundscapes in the strictest sense of the word — sonic terrains of vast, cloud-covered moors rounded by bituminous, craggy peaks.

By contrast, The Eraser feels cramped, as though Yorke “sat in the cupboard and wrote it down real neat”, as he sings on Hail to the Thief‘s “Myxomatosis”. Yorke has described the album’s making as if he and Godrich had “let loose in the tool cupboard”, and in an interview with Craig McLean, when asked how he sketched some the album’s ideas, he answered, “I have a little tiny cupboard in my house, which you really couldn’t call a studio.” Yorke and Godrich let themselves loose in the cupboard, but they closed the door behind them.

Despite the album’s self-imposed claustrophobia, the songs have spindly legs that grope out from under the door, feeling their way around political issues — most notably the suicide of scientist David Kelly (who worked in the UK defense ministry and spoke to a reporter about the agency’s Iraq WMD dossier) on “Harrowdown Hill”. Beginning with an angry-fingered bass riff that continues throughout, metallic beats then skitter across the surface of cold but operatic sustained notes as Yorke admonishes in the voice of Kelly’s ghost: “Don’t walk the plank like I did, / You will be dispensed with / When you’ve become inconvenient up on Harrowdown Hill / There where you used to go to school / That’s where I am.” Calling it “the most angry song I’ve ever written”, Yorke told a BBC reporter he was uncomfortable discussing it, wishing to respect Kelly’s family.

Kelly’s suicide is only one form of disappearance the album contemplates. The opening song, “The Eraser” gathers the other songs around it in terms of its lyrical obsession with vanishing. Ultimately the song lingers over but cannot resolve the problem of interdependence: “The more you try to erase me, / The more, the more, the more that I appear.” The lyrics may not intend to speak to Yorke’s relationship with Radiohead, but they fit almost too well when one considers the sound of The Eraser next to Jonny Greenwood’s instrumental soundtrack for Simon Pummell ‘s 2003 film Bodysong. Without the gravitational pull of Yorke’s voice, Greenwood’s varied instrumentation –from explosive, conflicting percussion elements on “Convergence” to the plaintive, quietly melodramatic strings of “Iron Swallow” to his theremin expertise — and willingness to explore genres (see his September 23, 2005 Dead Air Space blog entry on dub reggae) stands out with amazing clarity. So in practice, their solo work inverts what typifies the band’s on-stage presence. Performing Kid A‘s “Idioteque”, Yorke will oscillate wildly, wielding a tambourine while Greenwood, hair forever hanging in his face, stands over an analog modular synthesizer. Looking at this tableaux, we would expect Greenwood to be in the cupboard, not composer-in-residence at the BBC.

Overall, The Eraser stands alone as a strong album, but it shows just how reliant Yorke is on Radiohead. Anyone who’s listened to Radiohead’s entire catalog will detect The Eraser‘s hints and direct borrowings from Radiohead songs and even more recently, the DVD The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time. To call the album repetitious would be unfair: “Analyse” spirals upwards in way no Radiohead song has, “The Clock” has a sinister, leisurely thrust that swims above a chattering beat; “Black Swan” — rumored to appear in Richard Linklater’s upcoming adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly — has a dark but sexy bass funk; on “Skip Divided” we hear Yorke hitting some of his lowest notes ever over what sounds like the beeping and hissing of medical equipment. “And It Rained All Night” verges on a drum-stick tapping rap-like rant (with background elements from Amnesiac tracks ). I imagined “Atoms for Peace” with dread to be a pseudo-scientific call for us to all just get along; but it surprises with a calm beauty and lyrics that lull you into befuddlement: “No more going to the dark side with your flying-saucer eyes / No more falling down a wormhole that I have to pull you out / The wriggling, tiggling worm inside devours from the inside out / No more talk about the old days, it’s time for something great.”

“Cymbal Rush”, borrowing from the TGLMOAT‘s soundtrack, closes the album and may be its most beautiful and most representative track. Computerized beats and electronica obscure the piano-driven song endearingly, as if Yorke is almost ashamed of how moving his voice and playing can be. The song is, as Yorke would say, just beats and electronics, but what comes forward on this track are Yorke’s strongest traits, traits that are only getting stronger, more agile, more flexible: his voice and his piano playing. Since Amnesiac‘s “Pyramid Song” we’ve seen Yorke alone at the piano more and more. The Com Lag version of “Fog (Again)”, the Help: A Day in the Life charity album song “I Want None of This”, the bootlegged recordings of his performance at Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Concert — all these showcase his near virtuosity as a solo artist. I say near only because I can so clearly see Yorke shrugging off the term. And it’s that undeceived shrug that makes his work unfailingly strong.

In the version of the Canute story I prefer, the king succeeds through failure. Knowing he could never control the tide, he stands at the shore as his courtiers watch on, all to prove no man is above failure. Yorke has not produced an album to shape the coming century the way OK Computer summarized the last; it is his willingness to stand at the shores of adulation and let the tide pass that defines the album. Few artists of Yorke’s popularity today would take such a risk. Few would ever enter the cupboard, and even fewer would ever come out with head held high.

Thom YorkeThe Eraser Interview