"Very insular" is how Thom Yorke, in his recent interview with RA, described the laptop-centric production process that birthed The Eraser, his 2006 solo debut. Yorke's approach to Amok, his new album with pseudo-solo project Atoms for Peace, was in many ways a reaction to all those hours spent hunched over a MacBook. Pieced together from feverish studio sessions with his Eraser live band, Amok would hopefully capture some of the spontaneity that Yorke lost in bedroom-producer mode, favoring rhythms and textures over meticulously crafted songs.
In terms of production, Amok is everything The Eraser wasn't: it's spacious, sumptuous, even boisterous and funky at points. But "very insular" is precisely what we've always come to Yorke for, in Radiohead or otherwise. It's probably the main reason The Eraser holds up dozens of microtrends and software updates down the line, in fact. That album's brittle and tightly wound sound design paired perfectly with his famously paranoid songwriting. All told, Yorke had never sounded so honest, up-front and approachable. So in shying away from what made him such a unique and enduring figure in both pop and experimental music, Amok leaves him oddly exposed.
You sense he'd recede into the background entirely if he could. Where The Eraser placed Yorke's signature laments front and center, Amok smears them with effects and sends them deep into the mix. Yorke has long used his voice for texture as much as the main event, but it's rare to hear his unmistakable tenor as window-dressing. On "Ingenue," Yorke sings listlessly, backing further and further into a weedy arrangement that seems ready to fold back in on itself. When he sings, "Care less/ I couldn't care less" through the haphazard buzz of "Unless," we're inclined to believe him: where Yorke once cut melodic paths you couldn't imagine anyone else taking, here he mostly follows basslines and guitar doodles that don't have much to offer with or without him.
Amok isn't entirely devoid of the sort of moments Yorke is so good at creating, where late-game epiphanies set the music swelling with emotion. He's refreshingly present on "Dropped," crawling up jagged synths only to get knocked back down by peculiarly emphasized percussion and what's unquestionably bassist Flea's best hook of the set. (If the Red Hot Chili Pepper is indeed the genius he's often acknowledged to be, Amok offers very little evidence of his gifts.) "Judge Jury and Executioner," distilled after years spent in AfP's live set, remains an admirably sophisticated tune, with its acoustic guitar twangs and prickly drum programming lending the record some much-needed sharpness. Moments of clarity like these make you think there's more at work here than the album's tedious stretches suggest.
Though far from the full-on dance album Yorke's DJ gigs and 50 Weapons single had presaged, Amok does feel like a collection of tracks, not songs. You sense the affinity he feels with club music's hypnotic repetition, openness of form and obsession with detail. But other recent converts, like Yorke's friend Dan Snaith on his recent Daphni full-length, have internalized something Yorke hasn't— that ephiphanic quality so much great dance music is bursting with. Without it, Amok can't do much but wander.