Not since Nirvana has a great band inspired as many mediocre-to-shitty knockoffs as Radiohead. No one knows this more than frontman Thom Yorke, despite his countless Cobain-esque efforts to alienate all but the true believers. And like many innovators who’ve watched their imitators commercially overtake them, Yorke hasn’t managed to overcome his career-long underdog complex—he’s still a weirdo, and he still doesn’t think we think he belongs here. “The more you try to erase me, the more that I appear,” Yorke cries on the opening title track of a solo album that resembles a Radiohead disc with most of the guitars and drums erased. Bereft of his band’s widely imitated dynamics of propulsion and climax, The Eraser instead relies on skeletal synth loops and skittering machine beats. Yorke’s inimitable warble is loud yet not always clear, but the simplest lyrics click: “This is fucked up,” he sighs throughout “Black Swan”; “It gets you down/You’re just playing a part,” he broods in “Analyse.” Very Nirvana of him.
Although no electronica slouch, Yorke’s knob-twiddling skills nonetheless pale against his bandmates’ tough strings. He and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich remedy the nagging repetition of muted click-hop with old-fashioned craft: the dub undertow and distorted guitars that wind “The Clock,” or melodic Joy Division-y basslines and dissonant, foreboding chords that build tension and never resolve throughout. But quieter arrangements emphasize the slightness of Yorke’s tunes—mood and volume-wise, Eraser occupies a similar space as those beloved ballads from The Bends, but Yorke doesn’t pen anything as substantial as “Fake Plastic Trees,” probably because Coldplay and the other clones are still biting it.
The ultimate difference between them and him rests in Yorke’s voice, which has rarely sounded better, although the context ultimately disappoints. Radiohead create dramas between Thom’s heartfelt croon and his bandmates’ intricate cacophony, all serving as metaphors for man versus machine, the individual versus the corporation, etc. Yorke here avoids the obvious by humanizing his digital canvas with oblique postpunk, but without the hooks of his inspirations or his main gig’s density, the results offer pleasantries where they could provoke profound unpleasantries. His computers are merely OK.