On April 17th Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien releases his long-awaited solo effort Earth. In doing so he joins his fellow Radiohead members, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Phil Selway in diving into the waters of a solo effort. A truism of the music industry is that being a member of a successful band does not guarantee the band member’s solo effort will be a commercial or critical success. In fact, a solo effort from a member of a spectacularly renowned band can be an ego-crushing endeavour.
The solo efforts of O’Brien’s fellow bandmates have bucked the consensus as each has gained critical and commercial success. In part, their success seems to have encouraged Ed O’Brien to overcome his thinking that the “The last thing the world needs is a shit album from me”, resulting in his delivery of a release that is uniquely O Brien and indirectly displaying his influence on his “day job” band.
Earth is an easily approachable album laden with an inspired mix of delicate Folk, ebullient House sonics, melodic hooks and revealing lyricism. Like his bandmates’ solo efforts the release captures the man. O’Brien has always been the Radiohead member who is the most aware of where modern music currently exists and esteems Rock Music’s legacy. On Earth, he builds from existing musical foundations and adding his own personal experience to the mix. It is no surprise that the keyword for the album was collaboration. Earth boasts a production team that included; Flood, Catherine Marks, Alan Moulder, and Adam “Cecil” Bartlett. Musically O’Brien utilized a panoply of musicians; bassist Nathan East, drummers Omar Hakim and Glenn Kotche, and multi-instrumentalist David Okumu to make his musical ideas a reality. Additionally, Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Laura Marling make guess appearances, Utley on “Shangri-La” and “Sail On” and Marling in duet with O’Brien on “Cloak of the Night”. The inclusion of these pros emphasizes this was no amateur endeavour. The resulting recording is a very impressive, big-hearted, warm and colourful release.
Earth opens with “Shangri-La” and an energized, bleeping base that mixes Brazilian percussion with a lovely thudding bass. O’Brien provides an almost surprising blue-eyed Soul vocal making the song quirky and beguiling. Overall the track attempts to capture the euphoria of the festival, here Glastonbury and Rio’s Carnival. Lyrically O’Brien points out that time is fleeting and how ultimately finding personal paradise can change a person’s life. The next track is even more impressing, “Brazil” is the spark point for the release. It has two parts, the first a dreamlike very personal ode to the beauty of the world and its challenges. The second part once again attempts to capture the thrill of Carnival personified by the spinning, throbbing dance track that builds into a euphoric finale. The track is the true centrepiece of the recording with great lyrics, great beat and great sonics. This is followed by “Deep Days” an oscillating “four on the floor” soul laden rocker.
O’Brien could not have created a better song for our current scary times as the lyrics point out we are all in this together. Lyrically the track draws from the Old Testament story of Ruth where she promised to go and endure anything her mother in law Naomi encountered. The track “Long Time Coming” is a gentle track that addresses loneliness and has an ever so faint reminder of Radiohead’s sonics at the end. The song “Mass” is a rumination on mankind and the Earth as seen from space. It was inspired by Carl Sagan and contains this feeling of interstellar mediation. It is both soulful and moving as the gorgeous production and original execution make it an outstanding offering.
“Banksters” shakes up that peaceful feeling with a helping of aggressive reproach about our current society and economic system with an alluring samba sonic. O’Brien pulls no punches as he damns the moneychangers, con artists and movers and shakers that ruin so many things with their greed. He echoes what so many wonders “where did all that money go?” This song is easily a companion piece to “OK Computer’s Electioneering” with its acerbic razor-sharp guitar licks and lyrical vitriol. “Sail On” was written as a musical tribute to Ed O’Brien’s cousin who died during the album’s production. It is filled with evocative sentiments on death and the possibility of the afterlife. It aptly serves as an evocative send off into eternity for a loved one and is one of the most beautiful moments on the record.
Coming down the homestretch O’Brien and Co unleash “Olympik” which is the “Do not miss” moment of the recording. O’Brien dares the listener to try and sit still during this phenomenal track. “Olympik” is a brilliant amalgam of a rave party and Rio’s carnival with a smidge of Four Tet. The track is loaded with awesome dance beats, extraordinary drums and a feeling of joy unrestrained. It is epic and ebullient as the listener can sense how much the musicians enjoyed creating this piece which is reinforced by their laughter captured on tape in the outré. Just when it seems it can’t get any better O’Brien pairs up with the incandescent Laura Marling for a glorious duet on “Cloak of the Night”. This track is again prescient to our current state as it offers lyrics that exhort mankind to hold on tight through the storms and tempests. The track is short but sweet and is a magnificent signoff to a brilliant effort.
Ed O’Brien first conceived the idea of Earth in 2012 and it has had a long gestation period but what a record he has released. The record is an excellent expression of both O’Brien’s inspirations and fears but additionally is an engaging carefully woven tapestry of sonic alchemy. Ed has inadvertently but in a timely fashion delivered a release that provides hope and escapes just when we need it, while never flinching from discussing those worries and concerns that have plagued man for time eternal. Earth is not an appendage of Radiohead but stands uniquely as O’Brien’s voice while intriguingly providing another piece of the puzzle in understanding his daytime band’s success.
Earth leaves the listener pondering how that band produces such singularly identifiable music from 5 very divergent musicians whose tastes run the palette of music genres. Prior to the release of Earth, three of the five musicians in Radiohead have had successful solo creative efforts and with this release, Ed O’Brien should easily join their ranks. I would love to find out if Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood can make it five for five, hopefully, time will tell. But in the here and now Ed O’Brien has come up with a noteworthy release that deserves the serious music listener’s attention.