There’s a phrase I heard, I don’t remember where, which I think is useful here – ‘the innovator’s dilemma’. I’m sure I’m butchering the meaning so don’t quote me on it, but as I recall the vague gist of it was that those who are initially successful by virtue of their new and innovative ideas will eventually fail in the face of other innovators unless they continually rework themselves. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how that applies in the world of music.
When any artist achieves any measure of popularity, they essentially have two choices. They can keep on going with the style that brought them success, sticking with the tried-and-true, or they can try and pick up on the latest trends, changing directions with the wind in order to keep the hits coming. The first route is rarely successful. Though there might be a few acts like AC/DC that remain mysteriously lucrative by churning out competent reproductions of the one same sound, for the most part they are swiftly forgotten by all but the hard-core fans. Things don’t exactly always work out the second way either – you’d be hard pressed to find an act that’s been in the public consciousness for more than ten years whose discography doesn’t include at least one embarrassing attempt to keep up with changing trends.
Thom Yorke has seemed to largely avoid either of these fates thus far, though his luck might be beginning to run out. Both as a member of Radiohead and a solo artist, he has contributed to a highly distinctive catalogue of work that is consistently strong, and even more consistently bold and inventive. It might not always be your thing, but you can always tell when Yorke is playing, a fact which is particularly remarkable given the amount of styles that those songs cover. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is clearly a Thom Yorke album, and it’s a quite enjoyable one. The laptoppy beats and signature vocals are used to great effect; squirrely rhythms and ghostly melodies abound. It also nicely blends the skittering pulse of his work with Atoms for Peace with the more structured songwriting of his own album The Eraser.
The problem is that while the album is good, it sounds, as was the case with the latest Radiohead album, pretty much how you’d expect it to. The King of Limbs was one of the rare cases when a Radiohead album didn’t introduce new vastly different sounds while reshaping the sound of the album that preceded it. There are several very fine songs on that album, but it doesn’t really surprise, and given Yorke’s record of persistently varying in style while remaining distinctive musically and avoiding trend-chasing, it’s a little concerning. That’s not to say that there’s no value in some continuity – it’s hard enough to stay fresh within the same style, so even succeeding within a style you’ve already explored is still something that many artists will fail to achieve. And it’s a little rough to criticise a persistently high-quality musician for the grievous sin of continuing to make good music. But then that’s the dilemma – if you’re known for is originality, you’ve gotta keep thinking of new ways to be original.