GIVEN that Radiohead, of all bands, are a blogger's delight, subject to more internet rumour and speculation than any of their contemporaries, it seems quite an achievement that frontman Thom Yorke managed to keep the existence of this solo project under wraps until May, when he confessed via the good old interweb that "something has been kicking around in the background that I have not told you about".
His secrecy is hardly surprising. If word had leaked that Yorke was working on tracks without Greenwood and the gang, the virtual bells would have been tolling the death of Radiohead. "I want no crap about me being a traitor or whatever, this was all done with their blessing," he commented tersely. "And I don't wanna hear that word solo - it doesn't sound right."
In that case, I'm not sure what you call The Eraser. An indulgence, perhaps? A bit of fun on the side? The facts are thus: this album was entirely written and played by Yorke and produced and arranged by longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich in a short space of time, while Radiohead toured and worked on their next album. With that album now not due until 2007, this is the closest anyone will get this year to sniffing a Radiohead-related broadcast, beyond bootlegs of the new songs being played on their current world tour. If Thom Yorke has ever knowingly sounded excited about anything, he sounds excited by this.
But it's difficult to share his enthusiasm. In terms of musical palette, The Eraser uses the same mix of digital and analogue (but mainly digital) instrumentation which Yorke first explored on Kid A. He keeps it sparse, simple - and samey. The lyrics are typically abstruse, but the melodies are uniformly weaker. There is nothing here that would make a highlight on any Radiohead album.
The title track kicks off with moody, reverberating piano, minimal electronic beats and juddering chords. Yorke's distinctive voice sounds winsome and ghostly, despite the defiance of the central lyric, "the more you try to erase me, the more, the more, the more that I appear".
There are further impressionistic lyrics about Thom-knows-what on Analyse, which will keep the head bloggers happily guessing at a meaning. You could hardly blame them for applying cerebral approach, as there is not much in the way of sonic kicks here or anywhere on the album.
Yorke's voice is by far the most engaging piece of instrumentation at his disposal, but here he chooses to exercise it on muttered mantras rather than soaring, cathartic melodies. He keeps his voice low and mumbling on the abstruse Skip Divided, but is back to his usual quavering falsetto on the absent-mindedly hypnotic Atoms for Peace - a track which is dressed in a particularly sparse arrangement, even by this album's minimal standards.
His naturally plaintive tone shines through on the skittering tech-folk of The Clock. Anyone eager for some political comment and aware of Yorke's dealings with the current UK Government might wish to dedicate the lines "time is running out for us, but you just move the hands upon the clock... you make believe that you are still in charge" directly to Tony Blair.
Black Swan appears to be more explicit, with lines such as "people get crushed like biscuit crumbs and laid down in the bed you made/you have tried your best to please everyone, but it just isn't happening". Scrabbling around for musical scraps, there is a recognisably Radiohead riff, similar to the brooding opening of Paranoid Android, to nibble on.
And it Rained All Night is musically slightly meatier, and lines such as "the tick tock tick of a ticking timebomb, 50 feet of concrete underground, one little leak becomes a lake" hint at some Hurricane Katrina comment. But it is the following Harrowdown Hill which is by far the most satisfying track on the album - and the most talked-about so far. It rides in on a funky bassline, boasts the closest thing to a chorus on the whole album and, according to Yorke, is "the most angry song I've ever written".
Named after the location where Dr David Kelly's body was found, the track airs doubts about the beleaguered weapons inspector's suicide, the lyrics "did I fall or was I pushed? and where's the blood?" referencing the paramedics remarks that they would have expected to find more blood at the scene where a man had slit his wrists.
The arresting opening lines "don't walk the plank like I did, you will be dispensed with when you've become inconvenient" are about the starkest words on the album, while the hookline "don't ask me, ask the ministry" rings out in some desperation.
The album then pulses out on the anticlimactic Cymbals Rush, which is little more than computer bleeps - not just any computer bleeps, mind, but old school Amstrad computer bleeps, or the kind of supercomputer featured in 1970s conspiracy movies. Strangely, this is the track which has cropped in the Radiohead live set.
Ultimately, The Eraser is little more than a collectable curiosity to tide us over until the main missive next year. But let's hope Thom had some fun for once.