Historians debate the birth date of the modern world. Some argue it began with an event: the National Assembly outlawing the aristocracy in France overnight on August 3 and 4, 1789. Others point to more nebulous phenomena: the rise of humanism in the Renaissance. Or was it an idea such as the skepticism and self-declaration in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum? Almost all historians and cultural scholars place the birth of “the Modern” somewhere between the 16th and the 18th centuries. None make an argument for September 27, 2000, three short months before the world learned of the absurdity of cresting Y2K fears, the release date for Radiohead’s fourth studio album, Kid A.
Perhaps it began earlier in 1997 with the anxious topical content of OK Computer. With the power of hindsight, the Kid A aesthetic began on OK Computer interlude “Fitter Happier”, but it was Yorke’s mental breakdown, not to mention the rise of commercial imitators of Radiohead’s sound that drove the band toward the often guitar-free soundscapes of Kid A. Radiohead’s modern world began as a reaction against Coldplay — not surprisingly a band who later appropriated the iconography of the French Revolution with commercial dissociation. Aphex Twin and Massive Attack’s late ’90s output drove Radiohead away from wire and wood, toward a landscape where it wasn’t entirely clear what the band members — drummer, bassist, guitarist — would do. Yorke’s first demos for Kid A often contained only a drum loop and fragments of lyrics. It was unsettling and beautiful: pervasive high-speed internet on the horizon, the connections and limitations of information technology were forecast, described and abhorred on Kid A. A harbinger: I first heard it on a burned CD-R. This was, itself, a new way of being. “We’re not scare mongering, this is really happening,” wailed Yorke on “Idioteque”; modernity had sentenced us to “everything all of the time”.
Yorke clarified and grew these sentiments in the near decade and a half since Radiohead jettisoned their mainstream alternative rock beginnings. On 2006 solo album, The Eraser, Yorke shifted the anxious and fraught sound of the band’s last few records to a solo project, The Eraser, rooted in the nexus between Yorke’s piano, laptop and Nigel Godrich’s production. If Kid A moved Radiohead away from its traditional structures as a band, The Eraser, in form and function, revealed an artist distinctly without a band. This was no solo album meant to approximate a group; it was an artist alone. The isolation and dislocation of modernity, the terrifying aloneness contained in an Age of Increasing Individualism, what David Foster Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”, filled The Eraser. Yorke was frank and inquisitive, singing, “It gets you down” on “Analyze” before wondering, “Did I fall or was I pushed, and where’s the blood?” on the stunning, “Harrowdown Hill”. The implied damage was existential, a crime that was both self-inflicted and a product of circumstance. The wound, though, was purely psychic. “It was a slippery slope,” Yorke concluded, a futurist Calvinism, making us sinners in the hands of our own angry gods.
On his latest solo release, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke finds himself back on the topic of the individual at odds with the Modern. Lead-track, “A Brain in a Bottle” more than alludes to this isolation; it references a specific interpretation of Cartesian skepticism. Contained in the self-declaration of cogito ergo sum ( “I think therefor I am”) was rich uncertainty — in essence, “I can’t prove the rest of this is real”, an idea that made its debut in the popular memory in the 1999 movie The Matrix. Modern Cartesians suggested that one could prove one’s own consciousness, but little else. What evidence was there that the individual was not just a “brain in a vat”? What proof was there of anyone else but the self? Yorke opens his latest solo work with this image. Descartes called the possible manipulation of sense perception, “an evil demon”. Others have called it, “an angry god”. All of this places Yorke philosophical leaps away from Kid A‘s anxious certainty. The artist may be sure of himself, but “this is really happening” is a brand of positivism that Yorke seems to have little time for anymore. Nigel Godrich’s production whirs between audio channels in an apparent circle at the opening of “A Brain In Bottle”. Like Yorke, the listener merely spins inside their skull-sized kingdoms.
The dystopian landscape for the individual runs in a through line on Boxes. The slow burning, “Truth Ray” features swelling synthesizer loops and Yorke confronting the terrible divinity of the self: “You know my sins, know my sins / What is it now that awakens me? / All of this in my head / Oh my god/ Oh my god.” It is an inward cry, not a plea for salvation. In the same verse, Yorke offers the fragmentary, “to lose the garden so easily”, perhaps suggesting all we have traded in return for worshiping ourselves. On “Interference”, Yorke almost whispers, “In the future we will change our numbers and lose contact.” This is the tenuous nature of modern human connection. The blithe and frequent Facebook post,”I lost my phone, guys, so send me your numbers” is here turned terrifying; the individual hangs on to the social fabric with white-knuckle fragility. Yorke sings: “The ground may open up and swallow us in an instant” as if the landscape itself is the enemy. The title lyric, “I don’t have the right to interfere” suggests the culturally relative dénouement contained in the rise of the individual. How can self-loving and loathing actors spend any time adjudicating anyone else?
On “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal”, Of Montreal thought, hopefully of modernity, “No matter where we we are always touching by underground wires.” Yorke sees the image of the pedestrian talking into their iPhone microphone or Blue Tooth headset differently. On “The Mother Lode” Yorke sings in falsetto of “hollow men”, a T.S. Eliot footnote that calls the listener to the precipice of the isolating chasms of the modern world. Like Eliot, for Yorke the capaciousness to be worried over lies within not without.
Yorke’s meditations on the modern make Boxes thoroughly listenable but uneven. The album’s first half is noticeably more coherent and accessible than the challenge and trouble of the second movement. At its most self-indulgent — and I would posit this is a useful term for an artist so interested in the self — Yorke sluices through the seven-minute, “There’s No Ice (For My Drink)”. Backed by the interlude instrumental, “Pink Section”, it isn’t entirely clear if the artist is exhausted with the project or himself in the album’s final few tracks. His frustration and impotence becomes ours. If the head is a kingdom, a prison, a certainty, the ultimate panopticon, these nearly 10 minutes present more than unsettling sight lines. We tire from all this seeing and being seen. “There’s No Ice (For My Drink)” is a mirror even the narcissist doesn’t want.
Yorke getting lost in himself works elsewhere as in the jittery break-beat of “Guess Again”, a song that emerges as the best iteration of the artist’s pretty paralysis. “I’m fighting in the darkness / the one that can’t be killed,” he sings against synthesizers that sound like they’re breathing. The enemy is the self. Modernity did this to him and to us. We also did this to ourselves. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sporting angular geometry in its very cover art, isn’t about any new technology, even with its faux-edgy release through BitTorrent. It’s about the old question about the power and limitations of our human containers. Unsure of existence outside of our consciousness, we rule and terrorize ourselves. As David Wallace reiterated three years before his own suicide: the mind is “a terrible master”. Sentenced to ourselves, we must learn to live or die in the gardens or prisons of the self-conscious mind.