Thom Yorke, free agent
LAST year, Thom Yorke was supposed to unwind. Radiohead, the band whose decade-long ascent has turned the singer into pop’s definitive reluctant visionary, was on hiatus after a protracted cycle of recording and touring. Yorke was savoring the retreat from what he wryly calls “making RECORDS, in big capital letters,” and the chance to reacquaint himself with his Oxford home, his longtime partner Rachel Owen and two young children. But instead of clearing a space for calm, Yorke found himself up to his neck in new thoughts.
“At my house, there’s a room about this size,” Yorke said, gesturing at the spacious suite in San Francisco’s Clift Hotel where he sat discussing “The Eraser,” the album he’s releasing on July 10. “The entire room was just covered -- the whole floor, with notes and scraps of paper. A friend of mine came by just before we started recording, and he was just looking through it, laughing his head off, saying, how are you going to piece this together?”
Yorke’s workroom mess, mirrored by the sonic “bits and bobs and shreds of all sorts of random chaos” on his laptop, gave him a sense of freedom he’d momentarily lost within Radiohead, which lands in L.A. for two nights at the Greek Theatre starting Thursday. In league with two longtime collaborators, the visual artist Stanley Donwood and producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke enclosed himself amid these fragments, shutting out other influences. “That’s how you get that thing where a project has its own universe,” he explained. “You say, well, everything in this room, that’s all there is, that’s all I’ve got.”
The fruitful little island of disarray contrasted radically with the high-stakes mood surrounding Radiohead’s most recent chart-topper, 2003’s “Hail to the Thief,” which left the band seriously in need of some elbow room. Made quickly, during a time when Yorke was becoming deeply involved with the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, “The Eraser” is a return to focus for Yorke, whose energy had flagged under the weight of his band’s outsized reputation.
“It was done in the context of Radiohead,” he said, adding that he initially dreaded telling his bandmates he’d embarked on the effort. “The best thing about it was that it wasn’t a problem. Of course it was fine. Why wouldn’t it be?” That the band dynamic “is a liquid thing is very important.”
On its current tour, Radiohead is playing a wide swath of favorites plus some exciting new material, perhaps enriched by the confidence Yorke says he’s regained by making “The Eraser,” which will be released on the super-hip independent label XL. Radiohead is one of pop’s highest-profile free agents, having parted with EMI, the conglomerate that released its previous seven albums. “The Eraser” could be viewed as part of a larger move toward independence.
Asked whether Radiohead would consider distributing its next album independently, Yorke unhesitatingly said yes. “We have two or three options, and that’s one,” he said. “Once we finish whatever we think is good enough to put out, then we’ll start thinking about it. We haven’t discussed it a great deal. I would love for us to drop a chemical weapon within the music industry. But I don’t see it as our responsibility, either.”
In the meantime, there’s “The Eraser” -- a project the labelresistant Yorke hates to label “solo.” What began as a side trip into the abstract electronic music he loves became, to the singer’s surprise, 40 minutes of remarkably powerful and direct music. Sure to be one of the year’s critical and cult favorites, “The Eraser” is an evocative portrait of life made slippery by urban sprawl, murky political alliances and global warming -- and given hope through individual and communal resistance -- with the blips and bleeps of Yorke’s laptop excursions coalescing into soulful, politically charged songs.
“It started out with loads and loads of beats and la la la,” Yorke said, mocking his own obscurantist tendencies. “It was pretty intense and very, very heavy.” Yorke’s busman’s holiday gave his producer a chance to highlight Yorke’s poignant tenor and melodic sense. “In the midst of it all there were two or three things that made Nigel and me go, ooh, there’s something really direct here. Someone might even understand it the first time around.”
“In the band he’s always finding ways to bury himself,” Godrich said in a phone interview. “Being a big fan of his voice and his songs, I wanted to push that. It would have been sad if he’d just made an oblique record. But because it was predominantly electronic, I had a really good excuse to make his voice dry and loud.”
The leap beyond the band context might easily have led Yorke into murky territory. A fan of experimental electronica, the singer first came up with a collection of tracks that didn’t really reach out. “It made complete sense to me, but there wasn’t enough there for anybody else,” he said of these early efforts. But the desire to meld his voice with the computer’s led to unexpected intimacies.
“The music, no matter what way you look at it, is coming out of a box,” said Yorke, noting that even the acoustic sounds of piano, guitar and bass “The Eraser” samples are computer-processed, and he cites Bjork’s 1997 electro-torch suite “Homogenic” as a primary reference point. “It has its own space. We consciously decided to not expand it beyond that. The vocals are exactly the same, right there in the speakers. The record was built to be listened to in an isolated space -- on headphones, or stuck in traffic.”
The traffic reference is no casual one for Yorke, whose concern about the environment nearly caused him, at one point, to “flip my lid.” Its songs send up warning flares that are cosmic in scope, yet movingly personal -- the sonic equivalent of a hand held up to a tidal wave. That’s an image Donwood included in “London Views,” the “apocalyptic panorama” inspired by “The Eraser,” which makes up the album’s cover art. One of the linotype’s most powerful segments depicts King Canute, the legendary English monarch who proved the limits of kingly power by trying and failing to command the ocean. The tale inspired Yorke’s flood of lyrics too.
“In the paper one day, Jonathan Porritt was basically dismissing any commitment that the working government has toward addressing global warming, saying that their gestures were like King Canute trying to stop the tide,” Yorke said of the British environmentalist. “And that just went ‘kaching’ in my head. It’s not political, really, but that’s exactly what I feel is happening. We’re all King Canutes, holding our hands out, saying, ‘It’ll go away. I can make it stop.’ No, you can’t.”
Such “not really political” talk has become tough for Yorke to resist, despite his desire to stay in the artist’s traditional spot above the fray. “The Eraser’s” most controversial song is “Harrowdown Hill,” named after the Oxfordshire neighborhood where authorities found the body of Dr. David Kelly, a whistle-blower who allegedly committed suicide after telling a reporter that Tony Blair’s government had falsely identified biological weapons in Iraq.
“I called it ‘Harrowdown Hill’ because it was a really poetic title,” he said. “To me it sounded like some sort of battle, some civil war type thing. Finishing the song, I was thinking about the 1990 Poll Tax Riots -- another of England’s finest moments, when they beat ... protesters, and you know, there were old ladies there and kids with families. I didn’t expect that many people to realize that Harrowdown Hill was where Dr. Kelly died. I’m not saying the reference isn’t there, but there’s more to it.”
“Harrowdown Hill” makes its point through startling sounds and shards of emotionally charged speech; it’s as political as a private, even secret, moment can be. Its startling beauty is typical of “The Eraser” -- which, like all of Yorke’s best work, finds its strength in the spaces where words and music dissolve, only to form something new. Literary types might call it poetics. For Yorke, it’s all about hearing the world through the individual voice.
“I have friends who were involved in the tsunami,” he said. “Talking to them, you realize that no matter how huge or terrifying an event is, you’re not going to grasp it from the newspaper; it doesn’t even matter if you see the wave on television. The only way you can actually relate to it is when someone explains their experience, one to one.”
Ann Powers is The Times’ pop music critic. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.