radio vulture

Album Review: Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes Isn’t As Innovative As He Thinks

“I am a 45 yr old Luddite and proud of it,” Thom Yorke tweeted last November. He then added, for emphasis, “.. yawn.”

This was the counterpunch in what I still believe to be the most underrated celebrity beef of 2013: Thom Yorke versus Moby. It all began a few months earlier, when the increasingly Tolkien-esque Radiohead front man announced that he was removing some of his music from Spotify, to protest a service that he and producer Nigel Godrich do not believe compensates artists fairly. Many saw it as a noble gesture against the streaming behemoth, but others — well, Moby — were less impressed. “Artists who are adaptable are doing just fine,” Moby later said in an interview with Mashable. “A musician who makes records, tours, DJs, remixes, does music for video games and films is doing fine. I love Thom Yorke but when I heard him complaining about Spotify, I’m like, ‘You’re just an old guy yelling at fast trains.’” Moby — who, it must be said, is four years older than Thom Yorke — had recently tried something new for the release of his 11th album, Innocents: He offered tracks from the album as a BitTorrent Bundle and encouraged users to make and upload their own remixes. To many internet users, the phrase “BitTorrent” is still synonymous with piracy, and the Innocents bundle was one of the company’s most high-profile attempts at rebranding to show that it traffics in legal downloads, too. (One of Innocents’ promotional images is a webcam photo of Moby holding a bumper sticker that reads, “BITTORRENT IS NOT A CRIME.”) The experiment seems to have been a success for both parties: The Innocents bundle has been downloaded over 2 million times.

Then last week, Thom Yorke kind of pulled a Moby. After posting a few cryptic photos that foreshadowed the release of something, he announced on Friday that — surprise! — he’d just released his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, as a BitTorrent bundle that cost $6 to “unlock.” “As an experiment we are using a new version of BitTorrent to distribute a new Thom Yorke record,” he wrote in a letter co-penned by producer Nigel Godrich. “It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around … If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work … The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or ‘cloud’ malarkey.”

I have mixed feelings about this letter. On the one hand, I am automatically delighted when anyone over 40 uses the word malarkey to describe emerging technology, and I much prefer Yorke fashioning himself the Curmudgeonly, Unshaven Hacktivist as opposed to Bono’s Freshly Trained Apple Genius Bar Employee. Even in this supposedly post-sellout age, I’d rather see artists take potshots at tech corporations than shill for them. (While we’re on the topic, how much do you think Apple is paying Bono to use his likeness on your iMusic app?) But on the other hand, do Yorke and Godrich have to be so drearily elitist about the whole thing? “Let’s see if this platform that millions of people already use is something that the general public can get its head around.” Ugh. I’m all for these guys trying to fix a profoundly broken system, but isn’t there a way to fight for artists’ rights without painting digital-era music fans out to be a bunch of lobotomized sheep?

Regardless, quite a few exceptionally savvy Yorke fans have figured out how this whole BitTorrent thing works: Since Friday, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been downloaded over 400,000 times, and that number continues to rise. As a piece of music, I think the surprise, no-hype release is actually a perfect fit for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. It’s a pleasant, intermittently lovely, but inarguably minor release in Yorke’s catalogue, which means that the more lead time fans had to anticipate its arrival, the more likely they would be disappointed with it. Between his solid 2006 solo album The Eraser and last year’s instantly forgettable Atoms for Peace record, Amok, the music Yorke makes away from Radiohead is always sort of about trying to shrink from the expectation of being That Dude From Radiohead, and Boxes sounds particularly conscious of that. Yorke’s vocals are intentionally inconsequential in these songs; his singing is often amelodic and his level of emoting rarely surpasses that of the “Fitter, Happier” robot. Instead, this record is all about immersive, aqueous texture; plenty have noted the coincidence that Boxes came out the same week as Aphex Twin’s great new album Syro, because it often sounds indebted to Richard D. James’s early, ambient/electronic compositions (of which Yorke is a diehard fan). This feels slightly ironic to say about music released exclusively on BitTorrent, but Boxes didn’t come alive for me at all until I listened to it on nice headphones, away from the distraction of my computer.

My main criticism of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is probably going to sound silly, but I hate the title and I hate the cover. Whether it’s intentional or not, its title makes the whole thing seem too smugly self-satisfied with its own means of distribution: Are we supposed to consider the BitTorrent bundle “tomorrow’s modern box”? (Moby, Madonna, De La Soul, and plenty of other artists who’ve already used the platform might argue that the Bundle is yesterday’s modern box, but that’s a whole other matter.) And I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, but something about the box sketched on the cover reminds me of the logo of the file storage site Dropbox, essentially one of BitTorrent’s competitors. (Still, this is a step up from the newly released cover of U2’s Songs of Innocence; I don’t even need to tell you what that one reminds me of.) Noble as their “experiment” is, the release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes isn’t quite as innovative as Yorke and Godrich seem to think — just ask the many artists who for years have been self-releasing modestly priced music on Bandcamp. It’s also not as provocative as Radiohead’s 2007 pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows — an album I still love but would have much more complicated feelings about if it had been titled, say, Pay What You Want.

Something tells me this is only the beginning of major artists experimenting with unconventional means of digital distribution, and for the most part, I’m all for it — even the failures are fascinating. (Considered as net art, Apple’s already-legendary Songs of Innocence Removal Page is sort of a digital-era version of John Cage’s “4’33”.”) It’s a shame, though, how seldom innovative distribution has gone hand in hand with innovative music — and how often breathlessly evangelical announcements about the former seem to be making up for the total absence of the latter. U2 and Yorke’s point/counterpoint releases show that we’re living through interesting and perhaps even revolutionary times when it comes to how music is listened to, valued, and put out into the world. I only wish I could say the same for the music itself.

Review: Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes