Thom Yorke insisted, ahead of the release of his first solo album The Eraser, that he “don’t wanna hear that word solo”. The Radiohead front man nevertheless wrote, played and recorded these nine tracks of electronica on his own, with the producing assistance of Nigel Godrich, during a lull in his band’s creativity.
Radiohead purists who believe the band and its members should only ever regurgitate The Bends in perpetuum are unlikely to find The Eraser easy listening. But those who appreciated the electronic dabblings of Radiohead’s Kid A/Amnesiac period will find plenty of sonic common ground. The shambling, pulsing electronic skit beats, peculiar time signatures and noirish atmosphere are all present and correct, but while much of Kid A featured distorted vocals, on The Eraser, Yorke’s voice is given its full head of steam.
It is an album at once steeped in the apocalyptically political and personal. Harrowdown Hill, scene of government scientist Dr David Kelly’s demise after being exposed as the source of Andrew Gilligan’s BBC story about the UK Government’s infamous “dodgy dossier” that triggered the Hutton Inquiry, comes across as Kelly’s voice from beyond the grave: “Don’t walk the plank like I did, you will be dispensed with… I can’t take the pressure.” Like a lot of people, Yorke is evidently angry and confused about the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death and the subsequent whitewash that exonerated the Government and caused the BBC’s top brass to fall on their swords. “I feel me slipping in and out of consciousness” comes the final unanswerably human moment.
Personal desolation is never far away in the lyrics, as with Analyse: “There’s no time to analyse, to think things through, to make sense… it gets you down, you’re just playing a part…” Yorke’s near-to-tears wail is the perfect instrument to lament such thoughts, and lovely piano and synth chords combine to make music for an airless, light-reduced space. Whether he’s singing about the music industry machine that Radiohead has become, or life in general, is less clear.
The Clock, another highlight and possibly the most extraordinary and sonically terrifying segment of the album, ranges from Matmos-like beat loops with distorted guitar through expansive, all conquering synth chords that remind of Gary Numan‘s biggest choruses. There’s a suggestion of time running out, of things needing doing. Black Swan, by contrast, is the closest to a Radiohead song as we get here, with sketchy guitar reminding a little of I Might Be Wrong.
Atoms For Peace combines a low frequency synth bass loop with typically echoless Godrich production and the perplexing lyrics “no more talk about the old days, it’s time for something great”. Cymbal Rush gets near to such lofty aspirations, a huge, heart-wrenching arrangement that pilots a course between funeral lament and drum’n'bass mash-up before ceasing abruptly.
With The Eraser, perhaps Yorke has got his electronic musings out of his system for another few years, so the next Radiohead album will have space for guitars again, pleasing the self-styled purists. Meanwhile, this record completes a picture of a sometime prog rock god who’s just as happy – and competent – in the role of an electronica wizard. And he’s well able to marry insightful lyrics and memorable melody to a genre not always associated with such qualities. The Eraser won’t erase Radiohead, of course – variety being the spice of life – but it does suggest Yorke is increasingly confident in expressing his own apocalyptic, experimentalist visions.