EOB ‘Earth’: Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien Delivers a Finely Crafted and Colorful Solo Debut
When Radiohead emerged in the early ‘90s, they set themselves apart partly with their three-guitar attack — Thom Yorke strumming to keep ground, Jonny Greenwood on lead, and Ed O’Brien on rhythm. Of course, such descriptions are reductive, as “rhythm” is hardly even an accurate description, and Greenwood and O’Brien split duties more or less equally. Over the years, Yorke has released several electronic-oriented solo albums, and Greenwood has become the go-to composer for auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Even drummer Phil Selway ventured, out of the blue, into orchestral folk stylings, and released two albums. Now, Ed O’Brien finally goes solo, branding himself EOB, and releasing his bold debut album, “Earth.” Produced by Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) and Catherine Marks (Foals, The Killers), and featuring musicians including Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, the album is a work of well-versed and versatile musicianship. Radiohead fans will easily notice tastes and instincts that make their way into that band’s sound here, left to follow their own course and develop into fruition. The result is an easy, yet engaging, well-rounded album that splits the difference between the pastoral and cosmopolitan, the meditative and the mobilizing.
Opener “Shangri-La” begins with prickly, brittle tones that loop and accumulate in layers, as guitar, bass, and percussion gradually make their way in, building elegantly. O’Brien enters and immediately evokes Thom Yorke, having naturally absorbed some of his trademark touches over the years. O’Brien has always been in charge of backup duties in Radiohead’s live shows, singing lines that Yorke sings on studio recordings, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The particular iteration of Yorke that surfaces in this case is the cool falsetto form, although the punk-informed angst too makes its way subtly into the more emphatic lines. O’Brien sounds convincing in many registers, mixing occasional deep, sonorous snippets with his usual, unassuming tenor. World percussion, bleeps, and guitar incidentals pile atop one another in trancelike repetition, with O’Brien’s serpentine melody leading the way, and then a handclap-led chorus with a driving distorted guitar riff transforms the song, in a flash, into an irresistible, feelgood rocker.
When O’Brien sings, “I didn’t really know that I felt so cold / Until I found my Shangri-La,” he’s quite likely referring, at least on one level, to his new home of Brazil, which he praises in the warmest of terms. The next track on the album is actually titled “Brasil,” although the references are otherwise kept rather cryptic. O’Brien addresses love, and sings of “eden days” and “golden nights,” seeming, at any rate, enamored. He bellows over intricate acoustic guitars that nod to the British folk stylings of Nick Drake and perhaps Tim Buckley. Along the way, a segment of his guitar line locks into a repeating pattern, and a basic beat and bassline take over, steering the track toward dancefloor territory, and ultimately making for an epic, propulsive riot.
“Deep Days” locks into a deep groove, dim-lit and a bit loungey in a vaguely Bryan Ferry way. Repetitive guitar stabs give a trancelike effect, and the backdrop shifts slightly to hypnotic ends in a skillful use of negative space, a general strength of the album. The resulting free-flowing swing is the perfect conduit for O’Brien’s cool composure in surrender, as he croons,“Where you go / I will go.” “Long TIme Coming” returns to folk strumming, and O’Brien’s guitar work abounds with winsome flourishes, at points echoing the stylings of Johnny Marr. There’s a pastoral quality to the stripped-down presentation, and when electric guitars enter, they come in gentle overlays that manage to retain the feel of easy optimism, which serves to color the lyrics. O’Brien sings, “A lonely city girl / Looks out into her world,” building up to the titular phrase, but returning to these lines for a rather abrupt ending, his last utterances cloaked in foreboding rumbles and ambience.
Moves like this show that O’Brien is a rather daring songwriter, willing to indulge curious artistic whims. “Mass” is the boldest example of this, more of a mood piece than a standard song. Relentless, industrial repetition over light ambience builds into a dirge that O’Brien guides along with sparing guitar gestures. Having made his folk leanings more than clear at this point, he recruits a master in that arena, Laura Marling, although only for slight support on this track, to join him in light, breathy utterances of “Stay In Love.” Bits of strident, gritty, rumbling, distorted guitar here and there create a provocative juxtaposition of calming and troubling sounds.
“Banksters,” something of a meditation on the madness of financial racketeering, is a marked standout, showcasing O’Brien’s spark perhaps more than any other track. A tinny rhythm in 7/8 timing makes for a sound reminiscent of that middle section from “Paranoid Android,” and O’Brien dives in at the right moments with juicy, searing leads. The free-flowing rhythm and odd time give a sense of going along with something you know seems a bit off. Sure enough, it’s only a matter of time before the massive, howling screech of a guitar envelops you, and all hell breaks loose. Calm in all the catastrophe, O’Brien keeps a haunting, devilish cool, inquiring, “Where did all the money go?” in a low blues growl. Upon the words, “Breaking Free,” flurries of fluttering arpeggios fill the space, as if demarcating a realization.
A well-situated lull comes in the spacious “Sail On,” another largely ambient work that lingers in a particular headspace, building slowly, and working its magic over you. You sift in and out of the evolving details while O’Brien’s chords and vocal melody provide some regular framework. Then comes another sprawling, ambitious tune in “Olympik.” It begins curiously a bit like shuttling between different radio stations, before a commanding, upbeat rhythm takes over, and the track takes off. There’s a droning aspect to it, part kaleidoscopic color and part dancefloor shuffle. O’Brien certainly has fun with guitars, adding texture with Sonic Youth-style blasts of noise here and there. There are aspects of the song that might remind especially tuned-in listeners of various Radiohead songs, for instance “Arpeggi” and “Sit Down Stand Up.” After meandering every which way, and always returning to the conveyance of a seriously funky bassline, the track ends in an otherworldly groove. Finally, Laura Marling joins O’Brien again for “Cloak of the Night,” a sripped-down, guitar and vocals number that draws the album elegantly to an end. Marling’s and O’Brien’s breathy voices blend into one another, Marling’s a bit more prominent in the mix. As they join in concert, singing, “You and me, all night long,” we end up not far from where we began.
Ed O’Brien has a perfectly agreeable voice and a knack for melody, much more so than countless artists whose primary musical focus is singing. Yet, he generally lacks the type of petrifying vocal command that makes a singer truly shine. Similarly, he does not turn out the type of tunes that stop you in your tracks or leave you humming incessantly, as much as he taps into an element, arouses a passion, and creates a sensation. It’s very much in line with his overall character, judging from how he has always come across in the public eye. Rhythm guitarist of an era-defining band is a role that calls for a certain humble contentment. Moreover, O’Brien has always been a stabilizing force in Radiohead, a voice of moderation. This translates quite neatly into his solo work, in the unassuming simplicity of the lyrics, in the grounding overall balance, and in the themes of harmony. When one looks back to live Radiohead performances of songs like “Idioteque,” with O’Brien standing resolutely, shaker in hand, the ultimate team player, it’s not hard to see a record like this ultimately coming to fruition. O’Brien builds percussion-driven works with the same gusto, showcasing ‘90s sensibilities, cosmopolitan perspective, and maverick spirit. He demonstrates his usual modesty in his compositions, but fashions his guitar work with a wealth of loving detail. He draws heavily from rustic folk stylings, with a keen ear for ambience, and an adventurous edge. If you don’t find yourself exactly blown away, you should feel about right, as blowing people away is not O’Brien’s style. But do not expect an album of mere dabbling in singer-songwriter fare — this is top tier stuff.
“Earth” is available April 17 on Apple Music.