So I haven't heard the Thom Yorke solo record yet, but its very existence worries me. We may wind up looking back on The Eraser or whatever it's called as the moment Yorke began to break away from the 'Head. It'd be one thing if this was Yorke's quirky rap project or whatever, but from what I've read it doesn't sound much different from Radiohead's more electronic-y records. The band, meanwhile, are concurrently working on the follow-up to Thief.
Eraser is apparently an outgrowth of Yorke's creative process, born of the four-track noodlings whence emerge Radiohead songs. Does this mean that the stuff on Eraser isn't good enough for a Radiohead record? If it's inferior work, why put it out? Or does Yorke set aside certain bits and pieces that he really likes for his solo work? Isn't he therefore depriving the band of some of his better work and diluting his talent in the process? Or is the solo album a collection of work Yorke liked enough to present to the band only to have it rejected? Does this mean he's frustrated by his bandmates, unhappy with their current direction, and investing more energy in other work?
Any of these possibilities is a negative one. Maybe I'm just being pessimistic, but I don't think solo albums, by the frontman no less, are ever a good sign for the future of any band. On top of this, the record was released with minimal promotion, ostensibly to keep it from distracting the public from Yorke's main gig, but is being praised to the skies anyway. It's even been nominated for the Mercury Prize in the UK, where Yorke could probably stand for just about any seat in Parliament these days and win going away.
Am I overreacting? Perhaps. Radiohead are arguably the biggest band on a global scale, in terms of both commercial and critical success, to come out of the British Isles since U2. Regardless of whether you believe that band to be past their expiration date, you must notice that the media continues to treat a new U2 album as an event, a remarkable feat for a band who've been in the spotlight for about a quarter-century. If you're looking for a reason for the band's perpetual relevance, you could start by giving a listen to one of Bono's solo albums.
Same goes, to a lesser extent, for R.E.M.; Stipe could have gone solo years ago (it would have made perfect sense after Berry left), but is smart enough to know that his career longevity rests in no small part on the stability of the band and its creative interaction.
Ditto Vedder and Pearl Jam; you may not have given a shit about them for some time now, but they continue to pack arenas for multiple-night stands whenever they tour. Vedder alone? Probably do one night at a large theatre.
Conversely, you could argue that Washing Machine was the last album on which Sonic Youth were culturally relevant to an audience broader than their core following. It was released around the same time as Moore's Psychic Hearts and Gordon's Free Kitten project.
You can run this meme all the way back to acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (discounting a movie soundtrack Waters collaborated on in 1970): their peaks lasted so long due to a combination of lineup stability and singularly focused energies.
I'm not saying Radiohead will break up next week, nor do I think their next album will be a clunker; it's a subtler and more gradual process than that. What I am saying is that when the ride comes to an end, as they all inevitably do, a lot of listeners may wind up pointing to this era as the turning point, and either Thief or the next one as their last good album.