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Technology, Mystery, and the Sublime in the Music of Radiohead

By Caroline Langston

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. I wore long skirts of filmy Indian-printed cotton and listened to REM sing songs about train drivers, boy soldiers, and half-crazed evangelists, all of which seems allusive of some generalized American past, weighted with blood underneath the sunny sixties-like harmonies. Music that was often haunting, except that you could never be sure whether Michael Stipe was being serious or just ironic--a question that was often the subject of late-night dorm conversations.

Ronald Reagan was president, and then George Bush. One night at a dreary, smoke-filled student union pub at Exeter University in England, where I was spending my junior year, I sat at the same table and shared a beer with an art student named Thom Yorke. I personally do not recall much of this evening, but have been reminded of it by more than one friend who was also there. I do have a few vague recollections of Thom Yorke himself, who amidst memory's blankness stands out as odd-featured and forbidding, given to dressing strangely and lurking in residence-hall corridors to play practical jokes.

But when I became a man, I put away childish things. By the time that the first Radiohead album, Pablo Honey, was released in 1993, I was in graduate school and working--an adult now, I thought--and the band's first big single "Creep" did not register for me as more or less distinctive than anything else on alternative radio, still a definable genre in those days. It was an unfair snap judgment on my part: When I finally got around to buying the album in around, oh, 1998, I was struck by the song's risky brilliance in appropriating the standard tropes of teen self-loathing ("I'm a creep, I'm a weird-o,") but then striking off each lyric line with a ringing and unexpected G chord, such that the lyrics stand out as less of a complaint than a strange affirmation of the inseparability of failure from existence. "What the hell am I doing here?" Thom Yorke's narrator cries out in a tone almost Davidic.

The only other song on Pablo Honey that approaches "Creep" in dramatic force is "Stop Whispering," a gentle guitar composition that simmers to a grand psychedelic crescendo that could have been lifted directly from The Byrds' "Eight Miles High." The rest of the album's songs alternate between Kinks-style lyric commentary (all British pop can be traced back to the Kinks) and the still-current conventions of blunt grunge guitar (remember, this was 1993). Nonetheless, I was hooked.

All of these realizations, I repeat, were only achieved in retrospect. It wasn't until the band's second album The Bends came out in 1995 that I finally began to pay Radiohead any particular notice, much less connect them with the one-beat-off art student across the table at the pub. "High and Dry," a single from that album, was prominent on the charts that fall, but it's by far the most uninteresting cut, three minutes of flat lyric lines and simple guitar, each bookended by Thom Yorke's breathy reiteration of the refrain, "Don't leave me h-i-i-i-gh / Don't leave me dry-y-y," inevitably drifting toward a characteristic minor crescendo.

But the rest of the album represented an important leap forward. Though still based on simple one- and two-chord progressions, the songs possess a lyric intensity and emotional range lacking in the band's earlier work. In Pablo Honey, lyrics and meaning always seem subordinate to music, to the great wallops of sound that crest nearly every song. By contrast, The Bends not only unifies sound and meaning, but each of its songs offers some variation on the theme of what constitutes authenticity, ruminating on the ways that humans deceive one another, and themselves: "You can force it but it will not come," the album's first song "Planet Telex" begins and ends with this succinct statement of the human condition, " . . . but still everything is broken, everything is broken," and asking, "Why can't you forget?"

"Just (You Do It to Yourself)," the album's most guitar-heavy track, addresses a woman taken in by an abusive lover, "You do it to yourself, you do . . . you do it to yourself, just you, you and no one else, you do it to yourself." The breathtakingly beautiful "Fake Plastic Trees" meditates on the nature of plastic and its ultimately unsatisfactory artifice, from something as seemingly innocuous as "Her green plastic watering can / For her fake Chinese rubber plant," to the despairing "cracked polystyrene man" who "used to do surgery for the girls in the eighties" but, as one after another socialite has discovered, "GRAVITY [emphasis Radiohead's] always wins and it wears him out. . . ."

Ultimately, nature's decay wins out, but from Yorke's/Radiohead's perspective, it's hardly a tragedy. Instead, the tendency of modern life and its technologies (including plastic) to restrain the human spirit is a far more ominous possibility, a theme destined to become a much larger preoccupation on the band's later albums. A number of songs on The Bends make references to these restrictions, but they're chiefly on the level of metaphor: In "Bones," Yorke complains, "Now I can't climb the stairs / Pieces missing everywhere / Prozak painkillers," while "My Iron Lung" broadens the complaint to include all of society: " . . . We scratch our eternal itch / Our twentieth century bitch and we are grateful for our / Iron lung."

The band's third album, 1997's OK Computer, takes all of the concerns that are merely hinted at on The Bends and expands them into an organizing principle for the whole work, both musically and lyrically. Music-critic types tend to scoff at the term "concept album," raising specters of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, as though they were the musical equivalents of Kant and Hegel, album/theses with a capital "A." But at their best--think "Blood on the Tracks"--concept albums offer the richness of multiple vines twined around a single pillar. A deft synthesis of alternative pop, orchestral touches, and electronic samples, OK Computer is just this sort of an album, all of its threads turning about a couple of implied central questions that could have come straight from Walker Percy. Why is modern man so unhappy? And how can he be rescued from it?

That he can be rescued from it is apparent from "Airbag," the album's opening track, but the salvation here is as much in the music as it is in theology: The song opens with a sober violin and expands into a twenty-six-second vocalless intro that builds, resolves, then leads into Yorke singing about the eerie euphoria of surviving an automobile accident: "In the next world war / In a jackknifed juggernaut / I am born again." While the lyrics point to the ways that trauma can heighten one's concentration on detail--"In a neon sign scrolling up and down / I am born again"--the song's meaning lies in its lush orchestral grandeur.

Any salvation proffered here, the album implies, is born out of violence. The album cover pictures an expressionist collage of threatening vignettes: airplane emergency-procedure cartoons, an aerial photograph of a motorway, the picture of a white statue of Jesus over which is superimposed a diagram of airplane takeoff clearance data.

The vision of humanity presented in a number of songs is equally discomfiting. "Paranoid Android" takes on avarice, complaining that "Ambition makes you look very ugly / Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy," while the ironically graceful "No Surprises" documents an anesthetized society's disconnection from itself: "A heart that's full up like a landfill / A job that slowly kills you / Bruises that won't heal." The spoken word "Fitter Happier" enumerates society's clichés about healthy and "balanced" living, such as "not drinking too much" and "regular exercise at the gym (three days a week)," then turns them on their heads: "Calm / Fitter / Healthier and more productive / A pig in a cage on antibiotics."

But verily after hardship cometh ease. "Subterranean Homesick Alien," the album's most hauntingly beautiful track, presents an earthbound narrator's powerful cry for the transcendence that an abduction by Roswell, New Mexico-style aliens might offer: "I wish that they'd swoop down in a country lane / Late at night when I'm driving / Take me aboard their beautiful ship / Show me the world as I'd love to see it." Marrying science fiction to synthesizer sound, the song offers as compressed and lyrical a vision as something from "The Waste Land," and that poem's same expression of passionate desire for release from the tedium of the meaningless everyday. The entire album is an equally assured composition.

Naturally, OK Computer was a hard act to follow, and it took the band three years to release another album. Kid A came out in Fall 2000, with the promise that it would be followed closely by another album of material drawn from the same recording sessions. This was Amnesiac, which arrived in stores in June 2001. Effectively, both of these albums seem less discrete units than extensions of one another.

Released to great public expectation, Kid A immediately bewildered almost everyone, both die-hard OK Computer fans who wondered what had happened to the band's sound, and average listeners who were mystified at how such an album could have debuted at No. 1, let alone be nominated for Album of the Year. The band appeared on Saturday Night Live, and two of the album's songs, "The National Anthem" and "Optimistic," got a decent amount of airplay, but "radio unfriendly" does not even begin to describe the ways in which Kid A is a hard album to listen to. Where OK Computer was symphonic, Kid A is a series of minimalistic, self-contained compositions--nearly all of which, lacking the drama of standard pop-song key changes and refrains, give a feeling of irresolution.

The songs are intensely monotonous: "Everything in Its Right Place," the album's opener, is simply one synthesizer line repeated over and over; the vocals of the eponymous "Kid A," filtered through a Heil talk box, sound not unlike the chanting of Buddhist monks against a simple drum track. "Treefingers" rings with an aural shimmer that could be temple bells or gamelan. "How to Disappear Completely" features a lush arrangement of rising and falling strings.

Even the album's up-tempo tracks, the aforementioned "The National Anthem" (which highlights an experimental jazz horn section like something out of Sun Ra) and "Optimistic" are built on a base of repetition, and thus possess a meditative quality. In its collage of hypnotic electronica and Asian-inspired sounds, the album closely echoes the early Public Image, Limited of Second Edition and The Flowers of Romance--a connection I'm surprised not to have seen anyone else make so far.

Amnesiac 's distinguishing characteristic from Kid A is that it is more heavily electronic. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box," "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," and "I Might Be Wrong" all sound as though they could be techno dance tunes, but for Carthusian monks. But there are other styles as well, the album remains unpredictable: The heavy bass-and-drum beat of "Dollars and Cents" could have been borrowed from Massive Attack. "Life in a Glasshouse," the oddest track on the whole work and its closer, utilizes a full-fledged brass band and sounds as though it could have been composed by Kurt Weil.

The album also has a number of songs that are as beautiful and meticulously orchestrated as "Subterranean Homesick Alien" or "Nice Dream": "Pyramid Song," the dreamy piano-based "You and Whose Army," and "Knives Out," which purportedly required more than 300 hours in the studio to produce.

So what of these obscure albums that, for the most part, so little resemble their predecessors? Whereas they may not function properly as unit-generating popular music commodities--the kind of obviously deliberate nose-thumbing gesture that underscores Radiohead's reputation for self-involved pretentiousness--Kid A and Amnesiac represent the next logical step in the band's development. Whereas OK Computer boldly identified the conflicts between technology and humanity, Kid A and Amnesiac present a world in which the battle has already been lost. Here the question is not, How can he be rescued from it?, but, amid an all-pervasive global technology-media culture, How can he be rescued within it?

Both albums still allude to images of groupthink and restriction (see, for example, "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box," with its refrain, "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case, get off my case."), but they're in the background. Instead the focus of these albums is a quest for personal meaning. They are an intensely private religious music: "Try the best you can / You can try the best you can," Yorke reiterates in Kid A 's "Optimistic," "The best you can is good enough." At first these lyrics might sound only ironic, but set against a texture of manic ascending chords, they ultimately seem urgent and completely authentic. "Release me, release me," Yorke cries in Amnesiac's reworked version of Kid A 's "Morning Bell."

The most striking expression of these albums' religious impulse is Amnesiac 's Egyptian-influenced "Pyramid Song." Over a track of plaintive piano chords, the song is simply the narrative of a spiritual realization, not unlike "Airbag," but in this case, the vision is not of death survived, but of eternity:

I jumped in the river and what did I see?
black-eyed angels swimming with me
a moon full of stars and astral cars
all the figures I used to see
all my lovers were there with me
all my past and futures
and we all went to heaven in a little rowboat
there was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
Nothing to fear, nothing to doubt. This is the record of a sublime illumination. In this static and tranquil tableau, all experience is encompassed, beyond all transitory words and earthly melodies, and beyond all striving.

Herein, I think, lies the key: As far back as "The Bends," all the liner notes to Radiohead albums direct fans to write them in care of "W.A.S.T.E., P.O. Box 322, Oxford OX4 1EY." W.A.S.T.E., as students of contemporary literature will know, comes from Thomas Pynchon's 1965 dystopian novel The Crying of Lot 49, and is the acronym for the secret underground postal service that works against the conventional U. S. Post and is operated by the dark, renegade brotherhood called the Tristero. Against the commercial jingles and Cold War paranoia of '60s California, W.A.S.T.E. represents the neglected correspondences running along under life's surface, the perpetual possibility that at any moment, every darkest fear might culminate into reality.

But in the middle of an exhausted, clichéd, and commodified culture, W.A.S.T.E. also offers the assurance that subtle, mysterious, and ecstatic human communications are nonetheless still possible. This, in the end, is also the promise of Radiohead.

Caroline Langston, the fiction editor for Mars Hill Review, has published essays, book reviews, and short fiction, and has won a Pushcart Prize for her work. She also works in development at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.

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