Radiohead shows are an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. Much of the legendary alternative band’s music is dark and hauntingly somber. The rest is urgently anxious, save for an uplifting moment or two on “In Rainbows.” All of this weight is felt at a Radiohead concert, yet people everywhere are dancing. There’s a spirit to this group’s music that, especially live, is undeniable.
Until now, we were only able to use the process of elimination to guess the source of this life. Frontman Thom Yorke, with his cold electronic solo escapades, and guitarist/keyboardist/wizard Jonny Greenwood, with his haunting film scores, were clearly the brains of the operation. This isn’t a knock on Ed O’Brien’s technical skill: the guitarist is responsible for creating Radiohead’s captivating sonic atmospheres. Rather, while Thom and Jonny work from the head, O’Brien prefers to speak from the heart.
O’Brien, who now goes by EOB, demonstrates this beautifully on his debut solo record “Earth”. There are no production tricks or sonic left-turns to speak of — that’s Jonny’s job. Rather, each of these songs takes its time to develop a rich, immersive atmosphere that invariably sneaks up on you. It’s impossible to pinpoint when it happens, but two-thirds of the way through each song, you’ll find yourself lost in the music, grooving in blissful ignorance of the world around you.
That’s the essence of “Earth”: reaching your purest self by getting lost in music, nature and the people around you. Lead single “Brasil” achieves this feat twice across its eight minute runtime. The first half is an acoustic ballad simultaneously infused with hope and melancholy: “The flame is gone / It’s over now / No one to blame, no / And there’s no fear now,” sings O’Brien, debuting his tender lead vocals. He sings of falling and an extinguished flame, but the lyric “I love you” ushers in a riveting part two. A deep bass, jangling beat and bright synths create an enlivening groove inspired by the Brazilian Carnival. There is no explosive climax. Instead, the song is patient: it works to create pure immersion and the result is euphoria.
O’Brien summed up the spirit of “Earth” and its lead single in an interview with KEXP. “It kind of imbued me with this kind of coming out, the darkness, kind of this elevation that you got in this music, the joy, the love, the warmth, the almost like gospel, I guess,” he explains. Ed was actually describing the effect Primal Scream’s “Movin On Up” had on him while he was recording the album, but the sentiment of personal breakthrough and euphoria found its way onto every track on this record.
Speaking of influences, “Earth” wears them on its sleeve. The sprawling yet urgent “Olympik” sounds like an uncut studio jam session from the recording of U2’s “Achtung Baby!”, likely thanks to veteran producer Flood. Meanwhile, “Shangri-La” is a spirited Blur banger minus the fuzz, and “Deep Days” resembles some of Beck’s milder grooves. Ed does well to imbue these tracks with enough passion and authenticity to prevent them from being complete rip-offs, but they’re nothing groundbreaking.
Such a variety of direct influences and O’Brien’s tendency to only call on one at a time result in a disappointing lack of cohesion. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the record’s track sequencing here, and the vast range of styles across the nine tracks makes for a disconnected listen. Song by song, EOB does a brilliant job of creating atmosphere, both on his own and with Radiohead. But unlike every Radiohead album, “Earth” as a whole has no such cohesion.
O’Brien’s lack of confidence, vocal or otherwise, is another major flaw. His singing is often shy and, at times, mixed to hide behind the instrumentation. Meanwhile, some of the album’s quieter songs don’t dare to reach for that ultimate level of serenity. Namely, “Long Time Coming” builds beautifully from its acoustic roots, with a rumbling aura sneaking in, but it never quite reaches the bliss it hints at. The song, like many others on “Earth,” could have used strings, a choir, something to elevate its solid foundation and add some extra musical intrigue.
Nevertheless, “Earth” is an impassioned document of Ed O’Brien’s self-realization and love for music and nature. EOB does a masterful job of conveying this love, and it’s a treat to glimpse into the mind of the lively guitarist who somehow has us dancing to Thom Yorke’s dystopian crooning.
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