It was a slippery, slippery, slippery slope
At the suggestion of a professional writer/friend who pulled a Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love number on me by firmly but kindly encouraging the use of caps and italics, this piece is being presented without the use of my usual schtick. After this though, I go back to being a slob.
1. The Long Version
The Eraser starts like this: //. //. //. Electronic piano. Then the voice comes in, all up in your ear. Warm and almost playful despite the question cum accusation. "Are you only being nice because you want something?" Sidelong glance. More of this: //. //. //.
I don't know how, but I fell down the rabbit hole and something that I would've been mightily resistant to when I first started listening to Thom Yorke circa The Bends, I'm now comfortable with. That is, listening to an album chock full of bleeps and whirrs. It's Yorke's fault. Him and his petulant wide swath of a voice. It cushions the sound of machinery.
I remember reading a Robert Christgau piece in The Village Voice years ago that made me bristle, fuckin' BRISTLE with indignation. It compared Stephen Malkmus and Thom Yorke as vocalists and declared Malkmus the superior by virtue of his "realness." I don't have any beef with that opinion, it's a matter of taste. I love SM and everything he lazily free-associates about when he opens that mouth of his to sing. But comparing the two singers with the idea that one was all golden throated technique and the other all intrinsic feel seemed way the fuck off the mark. Even for Christgau, who I respect (that 30 shows piece. damn! what stamina.) but have never really gelled with because hey, it's not his fault he doesn't speak to me. I'm a Latina from Yonkers, our worlds couldn't be further apart.
Malkie's a genius singer in that, in the parlance of Project Runway, he makes it work. He's fox-sly, surprising, and an improviser of the highest order; deft and light. Yorke is something else entirely. Yes, the guy can saaaang when he wants to but what makes him interesting and different from all the other male songbirds of the British school of feelings, is the Johnny Rotten ugly in his voice. From soar to sneer, he isn't afraid to sound hideous and that's why he appeals to me. I feel like he's barely containing himself, a twitching little vessel of opinions and melody that carry a weight that would be unbearable to listen to if it weren't for the funny/sad self-awareness behind them.
The Eraser is an album as litany of complaints. There are a lot of things going terribly wrong, but whether it's because producer Nigel Godrich forced him to put his voice way up in the mix, or because he's being more self-aware than usual, there's a intimate and resigned quality to the whole affair. So that when he sings the lines, "The more you try to erase me/The more.../The more.../The more that I appear," it comes out like a murmured hush. Like someone seeing the great wave coming but instead of running, they close their eyes and calmly refuse to budge.
It's a short one, this aural document of anxiety and there's repeated cyclical motifs both in the lyrics and in the way the songs are constructed. ThomManMachine is completely dependent on the beats. So they do their relentless repetitions while he provides additional textures by layering his voice on top. In addition to this, he channels his inner state of emergency, lets loose and splits himself some more on the lead vocals, so that there's Thom Yorke One and Thom Yorke Two competing for focus. In The Clock Yorke One spits and hisses in the background like the little beat box that could while Yorke Two unspools an evenly held line about time running out. Black Swan has a smidgen of guitar to appease those that feel deprived, but really the star of the show is the lush quilt of vocals. Atoms for Peace is Yorke's VH1 Divas moment, a chance for him to bust out his formidable falsetto in delicate runs. A favorite of mine is the weirdly uncomfortable Skip Divided that has Yorke One doing a vocal as decorative keyboard line while Yorke Two does a flat affect talk-sing as things bounce and breathe all around. It's not really a pleasant listen, not that it's dissonant or really that strange, but I'm drawn to the amateurishness of it. When Yorke starts babbling about how when you walk in the room, he starts to melt and yips hey! hey! all over the place, it's like he's finally starting to play. This bodes well, I think, for his future work with his high school buddies. You know, those other talented fellas that are currently on vacay.
No, The Eraser isn't perfect. I could've done without the last song and it does get a bit samey, beat-wise. Nevertheless, I don't particularly see it as a failed experiment, experiment implies that there was a solution being sought and I don't think that was the case here. Yorke had some songs he needed to get out and why shouldn't he? Especially when there are real glimmers of beauty there. Like a lot of imperfect but interesting albums, The Eraser will work on people on the basis of individual songs and their own complicated responses to them.
This applied to me as well. Even though I'm drawn to willfully eccentric things, there is something that has greater pull for me as a music fan and that is: an admission of helplessness in a pop song. My favorite tune on The Eraser, Harrowdown Hill, isn't so because of it being daring in any way, it's incredibly straight forward. But...I was listening to it on the bus late one night, travelling from Williamsburg to my hood, J asleep on my shoulder, Yorke's voice in my ear. Then the chorus hit and when he sang "I'm coming home/I'm coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can't do anything about it," those simple, unspecific lines got me right in my throat. That moment was enough to make this album a success for me. Because it wasn't the song alone, it was where it came on the record, where I heard it, how it translated to me. The timing was right.
Johnny Greenwood* says that Radiohead are planning to take some of the songs from The Eraser and play them out when they reconvene. I hope that this will be one of them.
2. A song
Harrowdown Hill/Thom Yorke
3. The Short Version
I really like this album even though it goes click whirr bump ba choo zip whirr on repeat for 35 minutes or however long it is. The vocals are damn skippy good. I was touched. Buy it.
* I wonder what Greenwood would make of Christgau's piece. Besides being Yorke's bandmate for near half of his life, he also worked with Malkmus and Co. on Pavement's Terror Twilight. Ah, to have been a fly on that studio wall...
Album to buy: The Eraser/Thom Yorke
Songs to seek: The Eraser, Black Swan, Skip Divided, Atoms for Peace, Harrowdown Hill