The signature Radiohead sounds are evident throughout the nine tracks Yorke has assembled from spare moments on the road with his reigning electronic-rock supergroup. Keyboards overflow like bubbling volcanoes. Backing vocals wail like ghosts caught in purgatory. The percussion is more programmed and the guitar work deliberately sparse. Some of the drumbeats sound like leftovers from a New Order session.
It is a mystery why Yorke chose to distance himself from his bandmates, except perhaps to prove that he needs them to polish and perfect his musings on bad relationships, technology and life in general. The overall minimalist effect here may be dubbed “Radiohead-lite,” but Yorke’s vocals are always interesting, and this is where the album ultimately succeeds.
The lyrics are in keeping with Yorke’s stable of angst-ridden, existential narrators. But lyrics were never a critical element to Radiohead’s overall appeal, except when they were misconstrued in their early single “Creep,” a song he now refuses to play in concert.
Much of the imagery is cryptic, elusive and vaguely pretentious. On “Atoms for Peace” the narrator is stuck in a relationship that is clearly not working, consumed by “so many lies,” and wanting to “eat your artichoke heart.”
Some of the songs just drone on with Yorke reduced to whining plaintively “I’m too wasted to fight back/I can see you/but I can never reach you,” on “And It Rained All Night.” The narrator of “Analyse” insists that “there’s no time/to analyse/to think things through/to make sense,” and this seems to be the consensus on most of the disc’s tunes.
When the lyrics and music come together and work, like in “Harrowdown Hill” and in the title cut, the music soars, though not as grandly as such Radiohead epics as “Everything in Its Right Place,” “Karma Police” and “High and Dry.”
The paranoid narrator of “The Eraser” is determined to get the upper hand, whether in a relationship or with his condition in life. “The more you try to erase me/the more that I appear,” he states. He warns his enemy “be careful how you respond” and asks “are you only being nice/because you want something?” The shoe soon is put on the other foot and “the more I try to erase you/the more that you appear.” Whatever the situation, the narrator can’t get away from it and “it’s doing me in/doing me in.”
“Black Swan” is another angst-ridden tune, but Yorke works his magic and makes the downtrodden epic sound romantic and uplifting, even with a chorus that repeats “this is f***ed up/f***ed up” in a mournful tone that has the singer on the verge of surrender (or suicide). The grim drumbeat that backs the song sounds like a skeleton’s knuckle knocking on a coffin and the overall effect is of a soul trapped in hell.
In conclusion, there really is no separating Yorke from his mother group. With Radiohead’s EMI recording contract now extant, and no new album in sight, fans will have to settle for this bitter but fascinating pill from Yorke, who remains one of the best and most mysterious vocalists in rock today.
— By Donald Gavron