THOM YORKE, The Eraser (XL)
The Solo Album is a peculiar pop institution. Making one makes perfect sense for band members who are attention-starved in terms of the stage/media spotlight and who don’t get enough creative input. You can see why John Entwhistle, for instance, recorded four solo LPs between 1971 and ’75. But what about the Pete Townsend types, the de facto band leaders whose aesthetic vision dominates? Why do they feel the need to strike out on their own? Trailed with a press statement terse and low-key almost to the point of being cagey, The Eraser offers scant indication as to Thom Yorke’s motivations for this solitary excursion. It’s not like the album represents a detour from the Radiohead path into vastly unfamiliar territory. Essentially, it’s an extension to the Radiohead house of sound: less majestic, perhaps, with a half-finished and rough-around-the-edges demo-like feel. But you could easily hear it as seventh Radiohead album, even though only Yorke and longstanding producer Nigel Godrich are involved.
Solo albums emerged as a phenomenon in the dying days of the 1960s, mirroring the fractured feel of the times: bands splitting up or losing focus in a welter of side projects. Arriving at a similarly entropic moment in rock history, The Eraser’s downbeat mood flashes back to that same era of self-absorbed singer-songwriters and troubled troubadours. Sonically it collides a certain style of post-psychedelic soft-rock with textures and rhythms drawn from across the span of Nineties electronica. So the ghosts of Roy Harper, Shawn Philips, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, jostle with glitchy clicks and blippy blurts straight out of the Aphex Twin/Autechre/Boards of Canada vocabulary.
Out of all those minstrels, Harper is the closest analogy, because for much of The Eraser Yorke plays the part of jeremiah, scowlingly surveying a world fucked up beyond all repair. Throughout the album there’s moments when a Yorke moan-tone uncannily resembles Harper’s folk-blues cadences; the layered wordless harmonies of “Cymbal Rush” recall the multitracked vocal lattices on Stormcock’s’ “The Same Old Rock” while the glistening blistered guitar riff on “Black Swan” could be straight off that album’s “One Man Rock and Roll Band”. The most instantly powerful song on the album, “Black Swan” kicks off its panorama of political-is-deeply-personal despair with a vague gesture at escape (“do yourself a favour and pack your bags/buy a ticket and get on a train”), proceeds through imagery of powerlessness (“people get crushed like biscuit crumbs) and pointlessness (“you cannot kickstart a dead horse/you just crush yourself and walk away”), before going out on a ringing note of non-catharsis with the chorus “this is fucked up/fucked up/we are black swans/ and for spare parts, we’ll be broken up.” Likewise sounding a note of ecological and geopolitical doom, “The Clock” entreats the world to wake up because “time is running out.” Propelled by a tripping-over-itself beat partially built out of fingerclicks, gasps, and vocal noises, “The Clock” isn’t really a protest song, though. It’s too disempowered, too prone, to actually claw its way up onto the soapbox of denunciation.
“Analyse” conjures a mood of washed-up/washed-out dejection and pastel-toned passivity that recalls a little-known early Pink Floyd B-side called “Paintbox.” With its imagery of anomie and mental disarray--“sentences that do not rhyme… fences that you cannot climb”--and its mewling chorus of “its gets you down,” the song would slump into a marshmallow slough of supine numbness altogether if not for its kickin’ beat (not so much jungle as privet hedge). The title track, opening the album, is fey and faint to the point of fading away altogether. Imagine Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” fused with The Cure’s “All Cats Are Grey” and remixed by Royskopp (a subdued, miniaturized version of a classic rave riff, staccato and Morse Code-like, materialises towards the end). The lyric seems to bear an inverted relationship to “How to Disappear Completely” off Kid A: “the more you try to erase me/the more, the more, the more that I appear.”
What makes The Eraser great is Yorke’s singing--for all the well-executed electronics and tasty guitar-work, his voice is by far the most arresting instrument on the record (and occasionally the most avant-garde too), proving yet again that he’s the Miles Davis of mope-rock, the maestro of a thousand exquisitely subtle shades of blue. What makes the album grate, though, are Yorke’s lyrics, not because they’re bad but because they’re so unrelievedly monotone and monochrome. There’s a single moment of pure joy: “Atoms for Peace”, a love-alone-can-banish-the-shadows song, Yorke’s voice all hovering tenderness and grace as he vows “no more going to the darkside” and pleads “peel off all your layers/I want to eat your artichoke heart… take me in your arms.”
After this Vespertine-like epiphany of intimacy, it’s straight back into the black with “And It Rained All Night”: musically impressive (it practically invents a new genre, electro-blues), but otherwise oppressive in its gloom (rain here figures not as a cleansing, redemptive force, but a pitiless elemental battering, ““relentless” and “indefatigable”). The wilting, eroded synth on “Harrowdown Hill” recalls Joy Division’s “Decades”, the closing track on Closer, the one about the young men with the weight of the world on their shoulder. Yorke’s imagery is Curtis-like too, alluding to pressure beyond withstanding and “slippery, slippery slopes”. “Cymbal Rush” is a song sonically divided against itself, the superfast bassline (which resembles a just-held-in-check panic attack) opposed by glutinous washes of gloomy synth teleported from Side Two of Bowie’s Low. The last song on The Eraser, it seemingly represents a low point of absolute existential prostration, Yorke barely managing to enunciate his imagery of retreat ( “try to build a wall that is high enough”) and futility. Finally the song picks up energy (the cymbals of the title appear) as if trying to make a break(beat) for it, only to sputter out abruptly.
So, The Eraser: a great slab of experimental misery, a document of quiet desperation and uncomfortable numbness. Strangely, it’s a record that’s easy to love, but hard to admire.