Thom Yorke Steps Out of Radiohead’s Shadow in Concert

The beloved frontman's solo work takes on new life in a live setting

Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes at Austin City Limits 2019, photo by Amy Price
Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes at Austin City Limits 2019, photo by Amy Price

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It’s hard to think of someone like Thom Yorke as being overshadowed.

However, Radiohead are such a critically lauded band that it can be easy to overlook the solo efforts of their frontman. Over the years, Yorke’s solo work, produced with the help of Nigel Godrich, who also works with Radiohead, has at times suffered from being appraised principally in relation to the work of his epoch-defining band.

(Buy: Tickets to Thom Yorke’s Upcoming Shows)

A common gripe with Yorke’s solo work is its often abstract, minimal composition. On tracks like “Guess Again!” — from the underrated Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — it sounds like only three or four tracks are going at a time, the first two minutes of the song dominated by piano chords, a beat, and Yorke’s impressionistic, half-mumbled lyrics. But “Guess Again!” blooms as it progresses, like many patient songs in Yorke’s solo output.

In terms of Radiohead’s discography, Yorke and Godrich’s impressionistic sketches are most akin to The King of Limbs, a record which was overlooked largely because it didn’t sound like what listeners had come to expect from Radiohead. In fact, it more resembled Yorke’s solo work. Yorke’s tendency for abstraction, inscrutability, minimalism — embodied in his spare, poetic, vague, disconnected lyrics — was most pronounced on this record. It’s an ethos that has driven much of his solo work, in particular his second album as well as his score for the Suspiria remake.

A difficulty with music in the age of streaming is the fact that music that does not immediately grab the listener often gets overlooked in favor of music that actively discourages the listener from drifting off — or music that is all too happy to be ignored. In the age of countless playlists labelled “chill lo-fi beats to study to” — that is, the age, not only of background music but also of functional music, music which is a means to an end rather than an end in itself, music that doesn’t actively vie for our attention yet also doesn’t qualify as “background music” is easily forgotten.

Live music runs contrary to this tendency. Where streaming implicitly discourages music that is subtle, inscrutable, or slow, the live setting amplifies and rewards songs that call for active listening.

Many critics and fans have discussed how their opinion on an album like The King of Limbs was fundamentally changed by seeing it live, and many have likewise discussed the extent to which Yorke’s solo work has benefitted from a live setting. Most of them have attributed this to the resonance of the live setting — the minimal compositions just sound bigger, particularly given the tendency for Yorke to play smaller venues than Radiohead. Additionally, the intimacy of a Yorke solo show — just Yorke, Godrich, and Tarik Barri, who creates abstract, ever-shifting video projections — suits the underappreciated intimacy of Yorke’s solo voice. Another side of what is referred to as “minimalism” is the fact that it’s often just Yorke’s voice over a few tracks; sometimes, the fewer pieces there are, the more they resonate individually and together, particularly in a live setting.

(Buy: Tickets to Thom Yorke’s Upcoming Shows)

When I saw My Bloody Valentine for the first time at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Washington (long overdue), I was immediately struck by how different the songs sounded in a live context. To this day, it’s the loudest show I’ve ever been to. I noticed things I’d never heard before on the studio recordings of Loveless, an album I had listened to countless times and thought I knew very well. This was as much a result of the live setting as it was a result of the volume. As someone who has been to many live shows, I keep going in part because they provide an opportunity to really hear the music, down to the smallest details. And though more immediately accessible music sounds great in a live setting as well, it’s often more challenging music, the music that rewards repeated listens, that best suits a live experience — particularly in an age where so many demands are constantly being made on our attention.

Thom Yorke’s solo work (not to mention his work with Atoms for Peace), especially Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — from which the current ensemble of Yorke, Godrich, and Barri takes its name — befits the opportunity for careful attention that a live show provides. Yorke seems to be aware of this, as he’s been leaning into those songs which take time to unfurl on his current US tour (such as “Truth Ray”, “Cymbal Rush”, and the haunting “Nose Grows Some”). With solo Yorke, it’s the traces of melody, which you catch or miss depending on how closely you listen, that keep me coming back. When you catch them, they’re beautiful, but they don’t always call attention to themselves. They are fragments, but in being fragments, their transience lends its own kind of beauty.

Pick up tickets here to catch Thom Yorke live in concert on his current tour.