10 Years Ago: Thom Yorke Takes a Successful Detour With ‘Eraser’
Thom Yorke's small-scale solo debut arrived on July 10, 2006 during a period of uncertainty for Radiohead, which hadn't put out an album in three years – and, in fact, didn't even have a record deal. In keeping, The Eraser – an album that was as broadly topical as it was dilated by electronics – drew out a series of ever-more pressing questions.
Was this the beginning of a new musical shift, after 2003's more guitar-friendly Hail to the Thief? After all, you had Yorke rushing into technology's chilly grasp. "One of the reasons we wanted to do the project was to approach and engage with computers and not a lot else," he told The Globe and Mail back then, "and yet still have lots of life and energy in the music."
Did this handmade-type project point to a failure of nerve? More particularly, had the experimental brilliance of Kid A and Amnesiac forever given way to simpler, more direct musical ideas? Was this the end of Radiohead?
We know more now. We know that Yorke was simply experimenting with long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, not heading off in a different direction. ("It was like we'd been let loose in the tool cupboard," Yorke later admitted.) That Radiohead would stick with XL, the tiny label which issued The Eraser, for their next studio project too – 2007's In Rainbows, perhaps the band's most compulsively listenable album ever.
And that Radiohead could actually be found all over The Eraser – if you listened carefully enough. The title track found Yorke mixing up piano chords played by guitarist Jonny Greenwood, "Black Swan" is built around an old rhythm signature from Ed O'Brien and Philip Selway dating back to 2000, and a cut-up sample of "The Gloaming" from Hail to the Thief can be found in "And It Rained All Night."
Then there was the presence of Godrich. "Early on," Yorke told Pitchfork, "it was like, 'Oh s---, maybe I should try this with the band," but once I actually sat down with Nigel, I basically said, 'Well, f--- it. It all goes in. That's where I am at the moment."
Listen to Thom Yorke Perform 'Black Swan'
This new side road, rather than charting a new course, simply turned out to be a fun ride – at least musically. They pasted samples in odd orders, only discovering what worked later. Then they attempted to make songs out of them. "It wasn't pure chance," Yorke added, "because I knew basically where I wanted to end up. It's like Nigel says: 'If you have an idea when you start, it's a lark. If you don't, it's a nightmare.'"
Lyrically, however, Yorke seemed to be in the mood to discuss more sharply topical things. A title like "Atoms for Peace" speaks for itself. "Harrowdown Hill" might have been a love song, but for its genesis in the story of David Kelly – a chemical-weapons inspector who committed suicide amid an Iraq War-era scandal in 2003. (The body was found near Yorke's former school.) There was also "The Clock," which could easily be about a politician trying to stave off the loss of power. And "Cymbal Crash," which appears to reference the walls society constructs between us. Even the album image, by a longtime Radiohead cover artist, was inspired by the climate-change debate.
"As soon as we had gone through the initial sketches," Yorke told The Globe and Mail, "it became obvious that they could be quite direct. Nigel basically dragged me kicking and screaming toward the concept of them being actual songs."
Fans held no such reluctance about buying The Eraser, a Grammy-nominated hors d'oeuvre which raced to No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 2 in America. For all the fretting they made have done about Radiohead's future along the way, that actually set the stage for In Rainbows – which became the band's second-ever U.S. charttopper.
"I recorded [The Eraser] just because I wanted to see what it was like," Yorke concluded, in his talk with Pitchfork. "I've been in the band since we left school and never dared do anything on my own. It was like, 'Man, I've got to find out what it feels like,' you know? And it was good. It was a really good time."
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