Undoubtedly the most underrated Radiohead member, Ed O’Brien has been consistently framing the band with unique flavour and intrigue. His desire to draw every possible texture out of his guitar made him increasingly irreplaceable, from OK Computer’s masterful distortion to the experimental timbres he perfected on Kid A and beyond. Everyone was eager to see whether he could put his palette of guitar effects and conservative mixing to work without his more exciting band-mates, venturing beyond his specialist duties into this broader solo role.
The results are mixed.
The album is decidedly art-rock, yet EOB doesn’t hesitate to move beyond that. He dedicates much of the 45-minute runtime to passages of contemporary folk and ambient dance, as well as playing around with chorus vocals and a variety of percussion to fulfil the album’s world-music leaning. This keeps the project interesting and fresh throughout, although each component is not necessarily built to match, nor does EOB work particularly hard on making his fusions flow.
Though centred on inspirations from his time in Brazil and a renewed passion for the acid rave of Screamedelica, Ed is happy to mastermind contributions from varied collaborators. Producer Flood and mixing engineer Alan Moulder, who have worked on countless noteworthy albums together in the alt-rock arena, push a variety of sounds to the fore, adding to the already busy structure. Flood’s keen sense of atmosphere undoubtedly complements the ambient passages in ‘Brasil’, ‘Mass’, and ‘Sail On’, whilst Moulder’s shoegaze experiences make themselves heard in the raw bass line on ‘Shangri-La’ and the gorgeously distorted drones in ‘Mass’. Bringing on the instrumental talents of Omar Hakim on the two 8-minute voyages ‘Brasil’ and ‘Olympik’ has also done EOB favours, especially on the latter, which offers a stellar drum pattern responsible for Earth’s most vibrant and energetic moments. Less inspiring are the guitar additions from David Okumu of The Invisible which represents an odd recycling of the 00’s alt-rock sound Radiohead is known for pioneering.
Indeed the album repeatedly suffers from such regression. Despite deciding against having Thom Yorke to sing on the record Ed often falls into distracting Yorkisms, mostly when he gets too comfortable in uplifting rock opener ‘Shangri-La’ or the pretentious and ineffective ‘Banksters’. His vocal performance is varied, mostly following a split trend of good backing harmonies but bad frontman work which detracts from the album’s elusive flow, most obvious on the dreary and repetitive ‘Deep Days’.
However, it is clear that Ed’s ability to work and rework sound has not depleted: every beat, riff, or drone is molded to perfectly sit alongside its companions, complementing this approach with Flood’s keen ear for what a song “is” to make ‘Earth’ the best possible version of itself. Unfortunately, no amount of productive genius can hide the flawed songwriting.
Although the independent halves of Brasil - a lovesick folk ballad and an ambient dance workout - are coherently moody, the stitching of their jarring styles relies on the production as a crutch. The disappointing ‘Deep Days’ fades meaninglessly away before more delightful folk balladry with ‘Long Time Coming’. This exhibits a rare bout of technical prominence from Ed, but is rather uninspiring in structure and emotion, and the well-crafted finger picking only succeeds in annoying mental comparisons to Nick Drake. Then comes the luscious sound of ‘Mass’, which uses the folk-meets-ambience fusion far more effectively, and minimal vocals lets the soundscapes take over. While ‘Banksters’ attempts to muster some energy into the album, it sounds like a Hail to the Thief B-side, and not one with much originality, composure, or anything like the political scorn it tries to bring with the central mantra ‘Where did all the money go, you f***?’. Although it might help him to get a spot on the playlists of Radiohead fans, it sits apart as the only straightforward alt-rock in the tracklist.
‘Sail On’ takes on a gently flowing feel, with Ed offering some soft melancholy vocals over ambient synths displaying yet more excellent production. It serves as a solid filler before the expansive ‘Olympik’, a song which offers a busy alt-dance crescendo, with plenty of musical breaks that allow turn-taking between the rolling rhythm and edged guitar flexes. A combination of Bono-esque vocals and the propulsive synths is nothing but Achtung Baby!-era U2, however through that 90’s prog-rock sound EOB exhibits the instrumental space of Krautrock and lets Hakim’s jazzy percussive style loose. The song is far more fulfilling that any other on the album, and would have made a good closer. Instead, EOB rounds off with ‘Cloak of the Night’, a final Pink Moon throwback, with the lusciously lethargic vocals of Laura Marling to spare us from an otherwise sleepy and ill-fitting closer.
For me, all this album offers is an affirmation of Ed O’Brien’s role within Radiohead. His ability to work a group of relatively weak songs into a record which, credit where credit is due, sounds fantastic, helps one understand the work he does in making Yorke’s bittersweet angst or Johnny Greenwood’s sporadic virtuosity function under a single moniker. Despite this underwhelming conclusion, there’s a ray of hope. EOB’s songwriting capacity and vocal style can only improve, and his capable control of his instruments is as clear as ever, he simply needs to expand on the creativity he hinted at on Earth.