Some of my favorite music is the kind that lives outside the algorithmic hurriedness of streaming and industry-run commercialism. The type of music that places you in an environment far from your own. The kind that firmly establishes itself as a modern time capsule from the past. Music that takes a piece of one singular moment and draws it out across a myriad of different moods and tonalities. The organic sounds that are essential for the mind, body and soul.
After 20 years of serving as a guitarist for Thom Yorke’s unconventional vision, Ed O’Brien found it necessary to branch outside the Radiohead domain in search for his own phantasm. In 2013, him and his family moved to a remote area of Brazil where steamy forests and prodigious mountain ranges replaced the very forms of technological dependency that Yorke warned us about in the late 1990s.
In the past, his quiet perspective was sacrificed for Radiohead’s idiosyncratic approach to music making. When things finally began to slow down after A Moon Shaped Pool, O’Brien decided to translate his fragmented thoughts into a full-length project titled Earth. All he needed was his guitar, a couple of producers, a foreign backdrop, and the people closest to him.
With the help of Flood (U2/Depeche Mode producer), bassist Nathan East, drummer Omar Hakim, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, O’Brien successfully exhibits a grab bag of genres ranging from rock, electronica, folk and dancehall. Earth is comparable to a polished gallery filled with three-dimensional shapes and colors; an ever-changing museum of expanded euphuisms transported from neuron to neuron-from pen to paper; from Brazil to the whole world.
The content from which O’Brien draws inspiration from pinballs between abstract purism, passionate exclamations, and vivid world-building. He’s not afraid to let the production cogitate for a minute or two before admitting his vulnerable state while drenched in befuddled malaise (he repeats “I am nothing” on “Mass”about ten times). The meteorological distortion found in the middle section of “Mass” reminds me a lot of Body/Head’s guitar work on their last album.
There’s other moments where O’Brien is more vocal and straightforward in his intentions. “Banksters” branches past the rugged hills and sprawling wetlands to examine some unanswered questions involving capitalism’s dangerous intentions with regards to our materialistic emptiness. It’s a worthwhile motive that kind of gets lost within the sudden tonal switch from “Mass'” folksy trek. My mind emphatically shifts from the swampy terrain to a samba dance party without fully preparing myself.
The album functions best when O’Brien focuses solely on Earth’s basic elements. This music quite literally operates as an “escape from reality”-an appreciation for nature’s overwhelming beauty, all while maintaining some type of human component.
In this specific instance, O’Brien seems infatuated with his significant other, vying to stay with her at all cost on “Deep Days,” and professing loyalty to his love no matter what on “Shangri-La.” The latter toils with loneliness until passion and comfort is finally found. It’s one of the more upbeat transformations on the record despite the obvious uneasiness found within its lyrics.
O’Brien also channels Nick Drake on “Long Time Coming,” an acoustic-driven ballad that features the guitarist narrating a third person story involving a girl chasing her dreams in some lonely city. Lyrically there’s much to be desired, but it’s hard not to get lost in O’Brien’s divine atmosphere and skyward vocal passages. I just wish the mural wasn’t left unfinished because the landscape is beautiful. All he had to do was put the colors together.
Conversely, “Brasil” finds O’Brien fully finishing his grandiose painting with careful brushstrokes and fully-formed emotion. The guitar arpeggiates with each change in mood. O’Brien’s relationship is falling in and out. Only a change in scenery can re-ignite the long lost flame. “Feel the love again/And I feel the love falling” he ruminates as the song smoothly transitions from hopeless reverie to possible optimism. Like many cuts on this record, “Brasil” sways like a summer breeze until a raging thunderstorm unexpectedly hits, and spontaneous emotion takes the place of vulnerable contemplation.
The forlorn dread found in the first half of Earth is nowhere to be found on “Sail On” and “Cloak of the Night.” O’Brien realizes he’ll stick with his partner through all the turmoil, regardless of our world’s greatest ales. It’s straightforward but undoubtedly heartfelt. Sometimes we need to rid ourselves of cynical distractions to feel close to one another again. Sometimes we just need to be a part of nature’s basic elements. Whatever your vice is, make sure it’s worthwhile. Life’s too short to be stuck in one place.