Thom Yorke: Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes… Unboxed

Accessing Yorke's latest album: he's doing something new, he doesn't know how it'll go...

Thom Yorke: Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes… Unboxed

“NICE! TO DOWNLOAD this bundle you’ll need the BitTorrent client.”So reads a message on my screen, offering me the option to either click on a tab and download the requisite piece of software, or to click and confirm that I am already a BitTorrent client. I click Option 1 only to find that I haven’t succeeded in downloading the relevant application. Rather annoyingly, this is stopping me from accessing the latest in the long line of albums by established artists designed to avoid the retail jumble sale – Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. So how did we get here? Ironically it all began with a shot of a white vinyl long-player spinning on a record deck which Thom posted on his Tumblr page over a week ago (at 4.31pm on September 21, to be exact), suggesting that he still understands the remnant thrill of the physical format.

“Yorke still understands the remnant thrill of the physical format.”

Five days after that vinyl tease, at 8.03am on Friday September 26, Yorke posted a message on his Twitter page that read: “Today is Tomorrow. (sic) the light of future casts the shadows of tomorrow ... Tomorrow's Modern Boxes! wooohooo! ‪ …” Directing us to Radiohead’s Dead Air Space site, Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich issued a further statement:

“As an experiment we are using a new version of BitTorrent to distribute a new Thom Yorke record. The new Torrent files have a pay gate to access a bundle of files. The files can be anything, but in this case is an 'album'. 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. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gatekeepers. 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. It's a self-contained embeddable shop front... The network not only carries the traffic, it also hosts the file. The file is in the network. Oh yes and it's called 
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes.

Some 12 minutes after issuing that statement Yorke added via Twitter: “I am trying something new, don't know how it will go. But here it is:) ‪ …

So here I am, having also received a press release from a major label PR, I’ve logged on to BitTorrent where the album is prominently displayed on the front page of site. It’s available for the princely sum of $6 (or, as I prefer to view it, £3.98). Not quite as ‘free’ as U2’s latest caper, but freewill, it seems, comes as a price.

“Do I feel that I’m buying this directly from Thom rather than The Man? No.”

The aforementioned technological grappling aside, logging on to BitTorrent is simple enough and requires the handing over of a minimum of personal information. Furthermore, the 198.6MB-sized files manage to download in less than two minutes. A triumph! Or so it seems initially. But do I really feel as if I’ve escaped from the clutches of what Yorke terms “the self-elected gate-keepers”? Not really. And who are these “gate-keepers”? XL Recordings (who released Yorke’s 2006 solo debut, The Eraser)? Record shops themselves? Probably not. Do I feel that by logging on to BitTorrent I’m buying this directly from Thom rather than The Man? No.

The emotional disappointment forces me to move away from the computer for a short while, returning later to transfer the album on to my iPod. Electing to listen to the music with the lights out in the middle of the night seems like a restorative idea. And so it proves, Floyd-ian atmospherics leading into the jellified, synth-funk of impressive opener A Brain In A Bottle and setting the tone for what is a hypnagogic effort.

“His vocals suggest that his delivery grows more soulful with every release.”

Less thrusting than 2009’s collaborative Atoms For Peace effort and warmly produced by Nigel Godrich, the eight tracks that make up Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes confirm their makers’ desire to delve further into electronic textures and to make music that remains void of definition. It is a slithery affair, its detail hiding with the perceived minimalism. Guitars once again appear entirely absent (although in places it feels as though there may be some FX-laden vapour trails) and there are moments where Thom continues to move further away from song structures towards pure mood pieces (the wonky, warped-tape dissonance of Pink Section is a prime example, segueing into the final track, the crepuscular-yet-enveloping Nose Grows Some).

The Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes artwork.

For all the musical adventure on offer, Yorke’s voice is what continues to enthrall and captivate, particularly on the glitchy fourth track, The Mother Lode, where his tone sits somewhere between Arthur Russell and Caribou’s Dan Snaith. While Yorke has previously expressed his frustration with the sweetness of his own tone, his vocals on this track suggest that his delivery grows more soulful with every release. Equally, in contrast, there are moments where his voice is employed to simply add to the album’s liquefied ambience. Meaning – or at least significance - plays a big part in the release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. The backward loop on the sparse, twitchy seven-minute tune There Is No Ice (For My Drink), for instance, sees his voice used to percussive effect rather than to convey any lyrical meaning. Whether the track is a parodic nod to Kanye West (“Hurry with my damn croissant!”) or a comment on global warming is a moot point. It could, however, just be an exercise in obfuscation.

In the days that have elapsed since the album was made available, the polemics around “gate-keepers”, fame, disruption and self-sabotage have raged with little real conclusion. Indeed, for all the snide remarks that have been made, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been downloaded close to 450,000 times at the time of writing, suggesting that Yorke has both reinforced BitTorrent’s role in the dissemination of music further and made his point emphatically: anybody can do this. In fact, many artists do already. But, unless you are Thom Yorke, will anyone really give a damn? Me? I’m not sure. But I still want that white vinyl album so I am off to W.A.S.T.E. thirty pounds on some music which I already own. Somehow, I prefer it that way…