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Message 242: Review of The Eraser

Below is a review of The Eraser. I am posting a draft here for any input, comments, criticisms, etc. If I’ve gotten something completely wrong, or if I’m completely wrongheaded throughout, please do let me know.

Begin review here:

On July 10th in the UK and the 11th in the US, Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, will release The Eraser, a nine-song album produced by Nigel Goodrich. In Yorke’s own words, “inevitably it is more beats & electronics.” Inevitably it is, but the characterization misleads: most every Radiohead b-side in the last several years—”Worrywort” to “Where blubirds fly”—has been a Yorke project bearing the trademark beats and electronics that betray Yorke’s long-time affection for Warp Records artists Autechre and Boards of Canada, to name a few. Overtime, Yorke, fiercely introverted, has internalized these influences. T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Sacred Wood,” “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal … The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” With The Eraser, Yorke does not imitate, he steals and the thievery, for many listeners, will provoke the cry: all hail to the thief.

Immediately, however, the album rebuffs Yorke idolators, both in its cover imagery and lyrics. Yorke himself has said “I wanted to work on my own. I just wanted to see what it would be like.” These words should come as no surprise to longtime Radiohead fans, especially any who seen Yorke’s near-breakdowns in Grant Gee’s 1998 tour documentary Meeting People is Easy. Late in the film and backstage, Yorke contemplates aloud (it feels less his talking to them than to himself) to Ed O’Brien: “I feel we should get out while the going’s good.” Gee follows this scene with a shot of Yorke singing “The Tourist,” voicing what the film’s audience is thinking: “Hey man, slow down.” Since 1998, Yorke has slowed down. Eight years on his public persona is fitter, happier, more productive, as numerous interviews attest, but Radiohead’s music is no less haunted, no less haunting. The ghosts caught on tape now, however, project less the anxiety that anonymous characters might feel, “No alarms and no surprises please,” and declare more the anxieties troubling Yorke’s own increasingly politically-sensitive conscience: “Your alarm bells, they should be ringing.”

Yorke on Yorke, and Yorke on Radiohead. Since “Creep,” the image of tormented frontman has tended to highlight Yorke as leader and overshadow the band’s fundamentally collaborative method of music making. What this album proves, however, and openly acknowledges is the sheer impossibility of going it alone.

The cover for Thom Yorke’s solo album is a print entitled “Cnut” by Stanley Donwood from “London Views” series of linoleum cuts. “Cnut,” while it looks like an unintentional/intentional misspelling of “cunt,” is also a variant spelling of “Canute,” a Danish king who ruled over England in the years prior to the Norman invasion. Donwood himself explains as much in a June 2, 2006 email to his mailing list subscribers, adding that Canute was the king “who may or may not have beren advised by courtiers that his abilities included being able to halt the tide. Cnut memorably failed to arrest the inexorable lunar pull, thereby proving any number of platitudes about our many glorious rulers have gigantically fucked up over the centuries.” Canute, then, becomes a double-edged symbol, and it is unclear how Downwood and/or Yorke intend us to read Cnut’s legend into the artwork. For one non-Radiohead-related painting, Donwood commented: “You can read as much or as little into this picture as you like.” The same holds here: does “Cnut” depict a mysterious and Kafkaesque bureaucrat in a black coat, face half-hidden by hat, who can truly believes he wields elemental power? The waters seem to be held back by the figure. Or is the figure depicted in all his arrogance thinking he put the world, and the weather, to rights? Or is the figure caught amid failure, proving his flatterers wrong?

Whatever the case, Yorke, in classic Radiohead style, has given us something to think about. But, like with Radiohead, it’s not Yorke alone: Godrich and Donwood stand accused as well. Donwood himself lapses into the second-person plural in his mail, calling it “The image we have used for the cover.” Even the myth Donwood retells has as its lesson the difficulty of listening to others (the courtiers) and the limits of individual power. The album’s beauty rises, battered but beautiful, from this conflict between we and I, between Radiohead and Yorke.

Yorke built the album—it feels built, with headphones and ProTools, rather than composed—along with Nigel Godrich from pre-existing materials. In a message from W.A.S.T.E to Radiohead fan sites, Thom Yorke wrote:

nigel produced & arranged it .
i wrote and played it.
the elements have been kicking round now for a few years and needed to be finished & i have been itching to do something like this for ages.
it was fun and quick to do.
inevitably it is more beats & electronics.
but its songs. (sic)

That Radiohead made this work without Radiohead is without doubt. The album feels cramped, like Yorke “sat in the cupboard and wrote it down real neatâ€? as he sings in Hail to the Thief’s “Myxomatosis.â€? Oddly, Yorke has described the album’s making as if he and Godrich had “let loose in the tool cupboard,â€? and in an interview with Craig McLean when asked how he sketched some the album’s ideas, he answered: “I have a little tiny cupboard in my house basically in my house which you really couldn’t call a studio.â€? As Robert Everett-Green notes in The Globe and Mail, “it took just seven weeks to put The Eraser together — a stroll in the park compared with some of Radiohead’s gruelling studio marathons.â€? But I think Everett-Green misses a striking difference: Radiohead’s studio marathons, if they can be called that, result in nothing less than soundscapes in the strictest sense of the word—a sonic terrain of vast, cloud-covered moors rounded by bituminous, craggy peaks. Yorke and Godrich were let loose in the cupboard, but they closed the door behind them.

Despite the album’s cramped, self-imposed claustrophobia, the songs have spindly legs that grope out from under the door, feeling their way around chilling political issues, for example, most notably the suicide of scientist Dr David Kelly on the track “Harrowdown Hill.â€? Beginning with an angry-fingered bass riff that continue throughout, metallic beats then skitter across the surface of cold but operatic, sustained notes as Yorke admonishes in the voice of Kelly’s ghost:

don’t walk the plank like I did
you will be dispensed with
when you’ve become
inconvenient
up on harrowdown hill
there where you used to go to school
that’s where I am

Calling this “the most angry song I’ve ever written,â€? Yorke told a BBC reporter he was uncomfortable discussing the song, wishing to respect Kelly’s grieving family.
While “Harrowdown Hillâ€? dwells over Kelly’s death, the album’s opening song contemplates erasure. Perhaps the album’s most memorable track, it gathers the other songs around it in terms of its lyrical obsession with disappearance. Ultimately, the song lingers over but cannot resolve the problem of interdependence:

The more more you try to erase me,
The more, the more, the more that I appear
Oh the more, the more,
The more I try to erase you, the more, the more
The more that you appear

The lyrics are hardly intended to speak to Yorke’s relationship with Radiohead, but they fit almost too well when one considers the sound of The Eraser next to Jonny Greenwood’s instrumental soundtrack for Simon Pummell’s 2003 film Bodysong.

Without the gravitational pull of Yorke’s voice, Greenwood’s varied instrumentation—from explosive, conflicting percussion elements on “Convergenceâ€? to the plaintive, quietly melodramatic strings of “Iron Swallowâ€? to his theremin expertise—and willingness to explore genres (see his September 23, 2005 Dead Air Space blog entry on dub reggae) stands out with amazing clarity. The image conflicts directly with the band’s on-stage presence. Performing Kid A’s “Idioteque,â€? Yorke will oscillate wildly, wielding a tambourine while Jonny Greenwood, hair forever hanging in his face, stands over an analog modular synthesizer. Looking at this tableaux, we would expect Greenwood to be in the cupboard, not Composer in Residence at the BBC.

Overall, The Eraser stands alone as a strong album, but in the end, it shows just how reliant Yorke is on Radiohead, and I mean Radiohead as the conglomerate that includes both Greenwoods, O’Brien, Selway, Godrich and Donwood. Anyone who’s listened to Radiohead’s entire catalog will detect hints and direct borrowings from Radiohead songs and even more recently, the DVD The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time. Repetitious would be an unfair assessment: “Analyseâ€? spirals upwards in way no Radiohead song has, “The Clockâ€? has a sinister, leisurely thrust thats swims above a chattering beat; “Black Swan,â€? rumored to appear in Richard Linklater’s upcoming adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, has a dark but sexy bass funk; on “Skip Dividedâ€? we hear Yorke hitting some of his lowest notes ever over what sounds like the beeping and hissing of medical equipment; “Atoms for Peaceâ€?—I imagined, with dread, a pseudo-scientific call for us to all just get along—surprises with a calm beauty and lyrics that lull you into befuddlement:

No more going to the dark side with your flying-saucer eyes
No more falling down a wormhole that I have to pull you out
The wriggling, tiggling worm inside devours from the inside out
No more talk about the old days, it’s time for something great
Want you to get out and make it work
So many lies
So many lies
So many lies
So many lies
So feel the love come off of them and take me in your arms
Peel all of your layers off
I want to eat your artichoke heart

“And It Rained All Night” verges on a drum-stick tapping rap-like rant (with background elements from Amnesiac tracks). “Cymbal Rush,” borrowing from TGLMOAT’s soundtrack song known as “Try to Save Your Prize,â€? closes the album and may be its most beautiful track and perhaps its most representative. Computerized beats and electronica obscure the piano-driven song endearingly, as if Yorke is almost ashamed of how moving his voice and playing can be. The song is, as Yorke would say, just beats and electronics, but what comes forward on this track are what I believe have been Yorke’s strongest traits, traits that are only getting stronger, more agile, more flexible: his voice and his piano playing. Since Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Songâ€? we’ve seen Yorke alone at the piano more and more, but, at least for this reviewer, not enough. The Com Lag version of “Fog (Again),â€? the Help: A Day in the Life charity album song “I Want None of This,â€? the bootlegged recordings of his performance at Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Concert; all these showcase his near virtuosity as a solo artist—I say “nearâ€? only because I can so clearly see Yorke shrugging off the term. And it’s that undeceived shrug that makes his work unfailingly strong.

In the version of the Canute story I prefer, the king succeeds through failure. Knowing he could never control the tide, he stands at the shore as his courtiers watch on, all to prove no man is above failure. Yorke has not produced an album to shape the coming century the way OK Computer summarized the last; it is his willingness to stand at the shores of adulation and let the tide pass that defines the album’s genius. Few leading artists today would take such a risk. Few would ever enter the cupboard, and even fewer would ever come out with head held high.

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