Thom Yorke - The Eraser

I had mixed feelings about a Thom Yorke solo album. Hail to the Thief, while harkening back to the more operatic times of OK Computer and The Bends seemed, beyond a handful of tracks, third in a line of transitional records; and by any normal estimation, this is two too many. What had seemed endearingly experimental (Kid A), and then charmingly creepy (Amnesiac) was beginning to feel forced. It was a great relief, then, when certain numbers, particularly closer "Wolf at the Door," hinted toward a stranger, more daring sound for the crew. This trend continued on the under-appreciated Com Lag EP, which featured an unbelievable Ennio Morricone-style Western rocker, "I Am a Wicked Child," that managed to sound oddly close to The Bends and yet daringly progressive.

Before listening to The Eraser, I pulled out all of my old Radiohead and had a little mini-listening party: me, my iPod, and the air mattress I call a bed. Maybe it’s unfair, but I hold Thom Yorke up to a pretty high standard: OK Computer is, after all, one of the finest records ever released, and that's saying a lot when you consider that Bob Dylan existed. If I was going to be impressed by a Thom Yorke solo record, I decided that it either had to be a) clearly delineated from the best of Radiohead, with an eye to the band's future sound, or b) a radical side-step from all previous styles, like Lennon's Plastic Ono Band albums.

What I got was neither.

The title track kicks off the record with a wash of warmly bit-crushed piano and drums, the feedback from the pixelization creating a soothing backdrop for Yorke's familiar vocal acrobatics. It's a wonderful little melody with great production. That's the good part. The bad part - and I never thought I'd type this, knowing what I know of Radiohead - is the lyrics, including such gems as, "The more you try to erase me/The more that I appear/The more I try to erase you/The more that you appear." Not bad I guess, for most people, but is this the man who... Jesus Christ, I'm getting old... nine years ago sang, "And you can laugh a spineless laugh/ We hope your rules and wisdom choke you," in "Exit Music (For A Film)"?

Things pick up, sonically and lyrically, with "Analyse," which manages to spin glitchy synth, simple piano figures, and subtractive bass into something oddly psychedelic in the old 1960’s sense of the word. I could, in a different musical universe, imagine this as a missing Love b-side. But again, it's old Thom Yorke tricks, slightly rushed and without Johnny Greenwood's guitar to add to the mix. This basically describes half the record. "The Clock" attempts rhythmic variation, but ends up sounding haphazard; "Skip Divided" is "Everything In Its Right Place" with a little more variance and lower-register synths; and "Atoms for Peace" is lovely, understated, and boring, boring, boring.

Now, I like The Eraser. I really do. It's a humble, quiet album, unbefitting a genius of Yorke's theatrical magnitude and yet perfectly in line with the mumbling, scared schoolboy demeanor he has worn like a shawl all these years. And yet, I kept thinking, "Is this it? Really? That's all we get after three years of silence?"

Only two tracks break the mould: "Black Swan," with its pitch-shifted guitars and disco-ish rhythm, and "Harrodown Hill," the only masterpiece present. "Black Swan," for all its cheap sine-wave antics, is a helluva song, and contains one flash of lyrical brilliance ("People get crushed like biscuits") before devolving into teenaged angst ("This is fucked up/Fucked up"). Despite this, it really is quite remarkable, and almost unlike anything Yorke has done before. But the winner of the pack, without a doubt, is "Harrodown Hill": the slickness of its open guitar riff is stymied by intentionally stilted playing, the wash of synthesizers builds atmosphere ably if predictably, and the glitchy beat doesn't distract like it does on "Skip Divided" and the (maybe) abysmal "And It Rained All Night." A masterpiece, but a small, small, small one. Still, it's better than nothing.

The closer, "Cymbal Rush," was previewed at Radiohead concerts and is, some believe, an indication of the future sound of the band. Let's hope not. It is the sort of track that wears its "experimental" chops on its sleeve without ever doing anything truly groundbreaking: Matmos this is not. When Thom Yorke is stripped of his theatricality, his lyrics and voice evoke nothing. His misery is inscrutable and his politics (quite frankly) average middle-of-the-road college student stuff.

All in all, at the end of this album, I was left more perplexed than satisfied or vexed. I had expected nothing, and got it: so why do I feel so disappointed? I've listened to the album countless times, both awake and asleep, in various poses and a tremendous number of places, and yet not one of the melodies stuck in my mind, not one moment of brilliant production struck me dumb. I'm sure that a great many of you will absolutely adore this record, and that's fine. But as you're listening to it, ask yourself, does it stack up with anything else this man has done, Pablo Honey included? I like humble, quiet things -- I mean, Chihei Hatakeyama's Minima Moralia has been soothing my ears at bedtime for a month now -- but this is something else.

This is dull.

--Rob Rabiee

Release Date: July 11, 2006

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