Thom Yorke's surprise digital album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes was released on September 26, 2014. It was suspiciously absent from many critics' end of year wrap-ups. Tight in its construction and length, it would appear as though it was tailor made for the kind of online listeners feverish for constant content. It's not long enough to take your attention away from other release demanding your attention (under 40 mins in run time), it's not short enough to feel like a promotional warm-up pre-album release. While there is speculation on the numbers he may or may not have done, its worth considered consumption.
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, the title an obvious a referent to the medium in which it was released, was set free onto the world wide web via BitTorrent Bundle, a service which allows an artist to sell file archives of content (mp3's, video, artwork) to the consumer. It comes with a $6.00 price tag, is available on limited edition vinyl online and can't be found on the iTunes store or Spotify, the most popular platforms for online media consumption. It features eight fractured dance songs, apocalyptic ruminations, existential doubts, chopped up piano chords, and digital breakbeats. This is familiar sonic and thematic territory for Yorke who has been sharing his end of days premonitions for years with Radiohead and most recently, in his expanded solo endeavors in the supergroup Atoms For Peace. As heard on Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, Yorke's art has shown true evolution; from brooding atmospheric (post-)rock compositions to something much more sensory with a focus primarily on locked grooves and rhythms. His voice has evolved too and he sounds more rooted in it than he ever has before, as if singing from a place of grace rather than the angst ridden panic of his work pre-In Rainbows.
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, while continuing his obsessions with midtempo IDM, is an update on the musical styles heard on Atoms for Peace's AMOK. While that album focused more on merging Afrobeat poly rhythms with a Warp Records sound, this time around he strips back a lot in favor of keys, beats and his voice, with no guitar to be discerned.
On "Guess Again!" Thom sings softly over skittering distorted drums and dark chunky piano chords: "Wild dogs are howling / Behind the curtains / I hold onto my children / Creatures staring in / All of my nightmares / Are in the garden / Guess again!" His words conjure up images of a disaster or home invasion film but rendered in the unconscious, an imagined terror from outside that may or may not be threatening or even manifested in reality at all.
He expresses similar internal conflict and confusion in "Truth Ray" where he sings: "You know my sins / know my sins / What is it now that awakens me? / And all of this is in my head / Oh my God / Oh my God"
Rooted in syncopated kick drums and swells of reverb drenched electronic sounds, Thom sings softly and beautifully on "Nose Grows Some" on a fraught and fearful act of love: "I don't know how this night will end / If I open up the door / To the back of your simple mind / And then we'll call the flood / When it all becomes too much / Spread your last legs / In the times you are afraid.”
While signaling a new chapter in the evolution of Thom Yorke (and possibly even Radiohead), Tomorrow's Modern Boxes also signals a new option for consumers and artists. While the sneak attack release method and its subsequent download numbers helped push it to coverage, the true radicalism is in the pronounced agenda of it all, and how it intimates a more utopian business model for musicians and considered ethical practice for music buyers. Regarding the album's announcement, he wrote on Radiohead's blog: "It's an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system [BitTorrent Bundles] 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 gate-keepers. If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done."
Certainly there are detractors of not only the material but the alternative methods in which it was shared. Even though the album c'est mort, the duration might give people the impression that this was tossed off. Or that every time there is a new release method different from what we are used to, it's somehow a cheap ploy to get listeners. We're not discussing U2 here. It's worth noting, the release has surpassed 4 million downloads and is now currently available on Bandcamp, further widening its reach to potential new listeners. To suggest, as some reviews had, that this release is a cheap vessel for minor Yorke, and that the relative quiet PR around its release is an indicator that the material was made with less care, is a bold assumption. The material is brief but emotive, dark but with real kinetic energy. Yorke meditates on melancholy like he always has, but there is a feeling of forward movement.
Furthermore, releasing a short collection of songs via this platform, best known for illegal pirating is significant and almost radical. The ideology behind Yorke’s decision to release in this way simply illuminates the larger dialogue about creative control, how online media is mediated by big business and how the artists (even the most popular of them) can monetize their work in the streaming service economy. BitTorrent Bundle and Bandcamp, take roughly 10% of a release's earnings, unlike iTunes and Spotify which offer much less to a musician should they choose to share their work this way (the statistics from the musician's perspective are worth revisiting).
In conversation with Sopitas.com in 2013, Thom discussed these feelings, saying: "When we did the In Rainbows thing what was most exciting was the idea you could have a direct connection between you as a musician and your audience. You cut all of it out, it's just that and that. And then all these fuckers get in a way, like Spotify suddenly trying to become the gatekeepers to the whole process."
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, though brief in duration, is a noteworthy continuation of the themes, musical motifs, and radical release ideology that Thom and his collaborators have been exploring for years. The chosen methods of distribution, communicates important messages about how the modes of music consumption and are becoming less opportune for the artists who create, a fact we seem to ignore in the face of convenience. Musically, Thom communicates the panic and aloneness of the isolated modern individual more effectively than any other musicians at his level of popularity and for this his art is, and always will be, in a class of its own. The frailty and tenderness of existence in an accelerating modern world, and the middle finger to the culture owners who are exploiting the labor of its producers. This is where pop meets precarity and no one is better equipped artistically explore these two worlds better than Yorke.