By Mark Guarino
Thom Yorke, he’s sneaky. Just before Radiohead descended on the U.S. and Canada for a ten-city summer tour in June, he announced the release of a solo album due the following month — A pre-emptive strike to not just dissuade assumptions that the British art rock stalwarts are breaking up, but also to beat the drums before a proper band album arrives in early 2007.
For now we have this. In stores today, “The Eraser” (XL Recordings) is what you’d expect when a wiggly, neurotic frontman shucks his long-time collaborators in favor of a solo set-up (laptop, guitar, piano) that could easily be assembled in a generous walk-in closet. Many aspects of this dense and obsessively rhythmic album will not shock the Radiohead faithful. Thanks to band producer Nigel Godrich, the songs could be neglected demos for the lauded electro-atmosphere of “Kid A.” But instead of majestic peaks or extreme guitar flourishes, this album works in miniature. The twitchy electronics remain subdued, allowing his vocals to step front and center. Yorke has always been a singer who hasn’t shied from his vulnerabilities; this time however he is working in a naked setting with little other choice.
Yorke opens the album with a question: “Please excuse me but I have to ask/are you only being nice because you want something?” The answers never satisfy. These are his most unsettling songs yet, ranging from obsessive love (“the more you try to erase me/the more that I appear”) to the Iraq war fallout (“so many lies, so many lies, so many lies”).
Godrich helps create a thicket of sound that surrounds and immobilizes the singer. Fleshy harmonies, ping-ponging videogame squiggles and eerie synthesized walls darken the mood. With its sheets of synthesizers, the most terrifying moment is “And It Rained All Night,” a song in which Yorke sings of being trapped on a New York subway car with unnamed dangers ahead. Its catharsis is “Atoms For Peace,” a serene beauty featuring his most sublime vocals to date.
“The Eraser” rubs out near the end with songs that sound like single ideas that stop short before fully blooming. Even its funkiest moment is short: the sudden razorwire guitar riffs closing “Harrowdown Hill.” “The Eraser” is a restrained album that can be too much of a tight squeeze. It demonstrates that no matter how inward Yorke’s insecurities churn, they take top flight when he opens the closet door and lets Radiohead inside.