Thom Yorke is one of the most popular worriers in popular music. In the documentary “Meeting People Is Easy,” made while Radiohead toured for its landmark album, “OK Computer,” and released in 1998, Yorke appears as a young man full of trepidation about becoming famous. His anxiety has since mostly abated, but his sense of displacement has not: his musical worries are now more like chess moves than like agonized referendums on his life.
While Radiohead continues to be a commercially successful group, Yorke’s newest project is an experimental rock and dance band called Atoms for Peace, which centers on him and his longtime collaborator the producer and musician Nigel Godrich. “Amok” is the group’s first full album.
Yorke’s voice is an unrelentingly beautiful thing that sometimes bothers him for precisely that quality. He sings in a strong and aspirate voice, and favors legato phrasing. His pitch is sufficiently accurate so that he uses vibrato only when he needs to—as an effect that can be drawn on for any number of aesthetic reasons. His singing is so pretty that Radiohead can sometimes lack the aggression that is a crucial aspect of much rock music, especially the average kind. The farther Radiohead has moved away from the traditional guitar-rock moves of its first two albums, “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends,” the more satisfying and comfortable the band has become. This is largely because Yorke’s voice works well in all melodic and harmonic styles. On his one solo album—“The Eraser,” from 2006—Yorke seemed happy mostly to replicate Radiohead’s choices. But “Amok” resists, amicably, the reassuring quality of his singing. As Yorke’s voice becomes more plangent, his backing tracks are increasingly fractured. While Jonny Greenwood, his most visible bandmate in Radiohead, has continued to score films (notably Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”) and expand on his wide harmonic gift, Yorke seems to be going in the opposite direction, searching for the simplest pairing of beat and melody that can successfully undergird a song. Yorke has characterized “Amok” as “a sort of dance-music record,” and though it likely won’t be filed as such, owing to its clear vocal lines, it is gloriously rhythmic.
The first time that Yorke made dance music for public consumption was in 2000, with the song “Idioteque,” from Radiohead’s “Kid A.” That track is syncopated, its rhythms audibly small and clicky, and those attributes still show up in Yorke’s work. And, while he has a reputation as a physically awkward stage presence, in the 2011 video for Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” he abandons restraint. The clip shows Yorke in a bowler hat, a white shirt, and black pants, dancing in a focussed but intent ecstasy that recalls both Ian Curtis, from Joy Division, and Prince. The dancing represented a public shift. Radiohead fans may have been hankering for big rock anthems like “Airbag” and “Street Spirit,” but Yorke had turned away from large musical gestures and gone deep into finely articulated rhythm and texture.
Yorke’s involvement in the dance community is not shallow. He has collaborated with artists he admires, like the California producer Flying Lotus and the virtuosic Berlin production duo Modeselektor.
Last September, Yorke, Godrich, and the drummer Joey Waronker, all of Atoms for Peace, made a visit to New York. On a Friday night, Yorke played a d.j. set at the Wooly, a bar in lower Manhattan; the next day, Godrich and Yorke performed Atoms for Peace material at MOMA PS1, in Queens. At the Wooly, a modified speakeasy with antique upholstered couches and wall sconces, Yorke wore a gray T-shirt and stared at a laptop on a stand. His selections generally avoided melody, blending stretches of condensed, grainy rhythm with stomping drum-and-bass tunes from the mid-nineties. The studied cool of the crowd of models and musicians relaxed long enough for dancing to break out.
At PS1, the audience was delighted to see the band, and there was less feigned nonchalance. A little before sunset, Godrich and Yorke appeared. Godrich, who has short dark hair and wore a red Lacoste track jacket over a dark-gray T-shirt, looked a bit like a rugby player. He stood in front of a laptop, and Yorke moved out in front of him, to dance and sing, separated from the crowd by railings and several security guards. Yorke’s brown hair, gathered into a short ponytail, is flecked with gray. He wore black jeans, sneakers without socks, and a vest over a white T-shirt. Godrich began “Amok” ’s opening track, “Before Your Very Eyes,” and the crowd cheered at Yorke’s guitar line, a scratchy two-part figure that flutters down quickly, sounding both strummed and picked. Holding the mike with his right hand, Yorke raised his left hand and began to shimmy, dipping his shoulders back and forth. He sang smoothly, at the very top of his falsetto range, over the music, which turned into a series of synth chords over a scuffling beat.
For the next track, “Ingenue,” Yorke stepped back and stood next to Godrich, singing some of the lyrics from a small black Moleskine notebook. The song is built from a weepy, descending bass line that is answered by a high figure, which plays a clump of small, hard sounds that are like both live instruments and computer-generated signals. Much of “Amok” goes along these basic lines: a synthetic keyboard runs down the middle, flanked by a series of crackling drum sounds and minimal bass or guitar patterns. Very little of the record is cloudy or vague; Yorke does not lean heavily on multi-tracking his voice. “Amok” is stripped down, all points and lines. Often, it sounds like a dance remix of a Thom Yorke song.
The album is an odd beast, born of marathon jam sessions at which several musicians (including the bassist Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) contributed; the earliest was more than two years ago. But it is Yorke’s project, directed by him and Godrich, and constructed in such a way that some songs sound as if there were no live musicians involved. “Default,” one of the album’s best tracks, is a mesh of keyboard pulses and rattling wooden noises. Sounds ripple and echo around the tonal material, but there is nothing as traditional as a buildup or a breakdown—most of “Amok” simply kicks in and goes. Yorke sings in the same full voice he uses in Radiohead, though occasionally he drifts to that thinner falsetto which hangs high above all the electronics.
Live performance is central to Radiohead’s career, and when I next saw Yorke, in London a few months later, the band had recently ended a nine-month tour begun after its previous release, “The King of Limbs,” in 2011. Yorke, who is forty-four, seemed considerably more tired than he had in New York, and was wearing a leather jacket and a thick woollen sweater against an unseasonably cold English winter. He wore several chunky silver rings on each hand and rubbed his eyes repeatedly.
“I haven’t really had a break,” he said, sounding a little bit like the younger man of 1998, who had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Apart from the drain of being on tour, Yorke has reasons for fatigue. Last June, roughly in the middle of Radiohead’s tour, a metal canopy collapsed before a show in Toronto, killing one of the band’s crew members. The event seems to haunt Yorke. Because he is a member of Atoms for Peace, the group received offers to headline festivals. But he was equivocal, and seems most excited about bringing out the laptops again for a brief, three-city tour. “If we get it right, it would be different every time we do it,” he told me. “We’d add things and strip things off it. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for ages.”
Documentary: Radiohead – Meeting People Is Easy 10/10