Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, the supergroup he has formed with multi-instrumentalist Nigel Godrich, Beck/R.E.M drummer Joey Waronker, Brazilian percussive master Mauro Refosco and the bare-chested slap-bass master of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Flea, released their debut album Amok last week. It caused befuddlement, mediocre reviews and a general shrug of apathy, despite a very eye-catching and original video for single Ingenue.
The problem is, apart from the super-loyalists of the Yorke opus, people just don’t seem to get it. On top of this, and perhaps more crucially, people seem unmoved by it…
Unmoved by Atoms for Peace so far. Thom should have got all his celeb pals together for jamming & good times, like Jagger’s She’s the Boss.
— Dorian Lynskey (@Dorianlynskey) February 13, 2013
Why is this we wonder? Well, the pitch is a tricky one.
First up, there is an anti-nuclear agenda to the identity and positioning of the group. Ok, fine, Thom Yorke’s well known for and and very vocal about his environmental leanings. And that’s a good thing, right? So, that should be OK.
Secondly, the song titles and lyrical content are a little, well, obscure. But that’s OK too, because sometimes it takes a while to get into new music, and then one day it can just click, can’t it? Radiohead titles and lyrics can be difficult to get a handle on too, but they’re still consumed by a very broad audience so, in theory, any obscurity of design shouldn’t matter.
Thirdly, there’s the musical content. Maybe this is where the real puzzler lies for listeners. Thom Yorke’s first album, Eraser, was almost exclusively made using his laptop and music software. This album is an extension, or progression from that basic exoskeleton, only this time he has added expert instrumentalists to the mix. Consequently, the album’s musical aspects offer up a combination of electronic sounds and digital rhythms. Yorke describes this process in a recent Rolling Stone interview. The rhythms are esoteric to say the least, and the mix of sounds doesn’t always sit comfortably. The net result can leave the listener pretty cold.
Yorke’s key collaborator on the project, and indeed on all recent Radiohead albums and live shows, is Nigel Godrich. Interestingly Godrich describes the project (positively) in the above interview as a ‘backward idea.’ Perhaps there lies the problem. The conception of the idea and the execution of it are already quite knotted. The listener is therefore asked to do a lot of work to untangle it.
All of which would be fine if, when the listener has untangled it all, they reach the end of the string and the idea at the heart of the project is a good one. But, in truth, the idea in this case is not fully formed; it feels like only half an idea.
Making music using electronic equipment which is not as easy as it looks, despite the wide availability of excellent music production software enabling non-musically trained producers to make professional-sounding music. Very few manage to do it successfully, but those who do tend to have a very clear focus behind the music. When audiences are indifferent to the music, it’s normally because that focus, the projection of the idea, is muddled.
The tension or space between the mechanical sounds created by electronic equipment and the live playing is where real musical magic explodes. In fact, by blending the mastery of digital production with ‘traditional’ live playing, a success symbiotic can be established. You might even argue it has always been thus. In one way, it makes the production of music a lot simpler. In another, it throws up a whole new set of problems.
Maybe Yorke’s Atoms for Peace will provide the real fizz and fissure in their live shows, something they certainly seem pumped up for. Flea and drummer Waronker are master live performers, after all. As is Yorke, of course. But for the next record, Atoms for Peace definitely need to work on the strength and clarity of their musical idea, or they’ll just come up with another knotty ball of musical wool suitable for only an atomic kitten.
We are currently seeking Music contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Music contributor, click here.