Earlier this year the Radiohead drought we had all been experiencing was finally over as they announced a massive tour and speculation about a new album was up and running. The shows were dazzling and many new songs were showcased, but talk of a new album was soon silenced when we were told not to expect anything until next year. Then, on their message board, Thom Yorke floated the certainty of a forthcoming collection of things he had been working on with past producer Nigel Goodrich and tongues were wagging furiously once more. He was quick to forbid any mention of the word 'solo' when talking about 'The Eraser' and stressed it was a collection of laptop ditties he had been working on for years and didn't spell the end for Radiohead.
And so here we have it, Thom Yorke's not-solo, solo record. And what a puzzling little thing it is too. I wasn't expecting to be treated to glorious, euphoric, acoustic gems from the master of guitar song writing, I knew it was a laptop affair and so I think I expected The Gloaming, the wonderful beat/click excursion on Hail To The Thief. As it turns out we get none of the above. Instead 'The Eraser' is a collection of 9 very minimal, stark and unforgiving experiments. I must admit to having a hard time with this album at first. I was so excited about it's release and had formed expectations. After the first few listens I thought it was shallow, thin, lazy and lacked not just the grandeur but the immediacy and urgency of Radiohead's recent stuff. None of Radiohead's albums are perfect and they always manage to include a song that goes nowhere and lets the side down (a Frank Lampard if you will.) 'The Eraser' seemed full of such songs and appeared to have been released far too soon and needed a lot more work. But then I started to think of it as more of an artist's sketch book, a place and opportunity where the artist can experiment with style and content and not be burdened with the need to finish or resolve any ideas, a place where he can touch on more personal themes and opinions as if these creations were private and never meant for exposure. I then started to see it differently and although it is far from perfect it has something that Radiohead can never produce.
The title track starts the proceedings off on a rather low-key manner with a soft beat skittering around a repeated piano cord. Yorke's vocals are equally as soft and seem to float over the ever more layered backing arrangement. The lyrics take on the Morrissey like structure of 'The more you try to erase me, the more that I appear,' there is a slight pause then the song drifts back in with a beautiful subtlety that is often seen throughout this album. Analyse is one of the more successful, beat driven songs that follows with Yorke reflecting on the role we play in this life stating, "it gets you down/you're just playing a part."
The Clock has all the makings of the kind of material I had expected from this album, starting off with Yorke's now trademark beatboxing, for want of a better word, the sort of noises and grunts he makes over the beat as he is getting himself into the zone. A rolling bassline and a beat that threatens to build progressively caries us away with the doom-ridden vocals of 'Time is running out for us.' and yet takes us nowhere and builds to nothing. This is quite often the case for many of the songs and on the first few listens is very annoying. As soon as he has established the melody and promised you so much the tempo is sustained and then ends.
The closest this album comes to a single is Black Swan, which is to be used on the new Richard Linklater animation A Scanner Darkly. I am surprised at this choice as it is one of the weakest songs. A rather unimaginative beat accompanies the repeated vocal "this is fucked up." Unfortunately this heralds the low part of the album with the turkey 'Skip Divided' bumbling along with monotonous mumblings labouring over empty beats and terrible lyrics. "I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm your lap dog/ I just need my number and location."
The quality is resumed however with the beautiful Atoms For Peace. This song has a slightly different feel to it than the rest of the album. I would hesitate to be so shallow and say that it hints at a more positive outlook but the Boards Of Canada type woolly beats and fuzz that accompany the uncharacteristically sweet vocals create a strange kind of nostalgia and almost lullaby feel.
This airy feeling is literally washed away as we move on to And It Rained All Night. The now familiar curtain of doom once again descends and the sinister synth washes are slapped on thick. Yorke is clearly getting accustomed to his new instrument and as he layers samples, twitches, and booming bass to create the nervous apprehension that precedes an approaching wave. Here we see Yorke's environmental concerns and fears and are reminded of Stanley Donwood's woodcut cover image that depicts King Canute trying to hold back a giant wave. This is one thing that I was glad to see in these songs. Although they are much simpler in construction than any Radiohead song they can be interpreted in many different ways. The have very obvious political messages and yet can be seen on a much smaller scale to be about more personal fears and emotions to do with love and relationships, a theme we have not seen much of since The Bends.
Harrowdown Hill is probably the high point of this album and yet the lowest point in terms of mood. On this song Yorke has manages to create one of the saddest and heart wrenching songs of his career. It is sung from the point of view of someone who has clearly died in suspicious and tragic circumstances and with a deep sense of regret he speaks his parting words to those he is leaving behind. This feeling is overwhelming and only amplified when we find out that the song is in fact about the tragic suicide of government scientist Dr. David Kelly. Harrowdown Hill is the Oxfordshire woods where his body was found in 2003 and with the lyrics "You will be dispensed with when you become inconvenient," Yorke is, for the first time, not mincing his words. This all contributes to the general and important point to note, that this is not a Radiohead album and the sooner you understand this the sooner you start to get it and enjoy it. This took me some time and for a while was very disappointed with what I was hearing. Harrowdown Hill is a prime example of a far more direct approach to what Thom has to say. It's as if his band has become too big to really spell it out and he is using this opportunity to let us know what he thinks. It doesn't always work but when it does, as on Harrowdown Hill, it is electrifying. Thom Yorke's work has flaws but that is what makes it so compelling - and this is no exception.