Hmm. I’m just not buying it. Nope.
I’m referring to the spin generated by various members of Radiohead, who argued that Amnesiac was not an album of left-overs, Kid A outtakes and bonus tracks, but “another take on Kid A, a form of explanation” (Thom Yorke).
I have no idea what the fuck Thom Yorke meant by that statement and I don’t think he did either. The other boys in the band were even less convincing. Here’s a passage from a KCRW interview with Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood as they tried to hawk their latest wares to the listening public:
Chris: Now, you guys have been here at the Sundance Film Festival, debuting songs from the forthcoming album, Amnesiac. We heard, actually, four songs. The album is now due for a June release, and it’s the parallel album to Kid A – that’s what you guys have been calling it in the press – parallel because they came out of the same sessions, essentially?
Ed: Hmm hmm.
Colin: Yes, it’s really. . . it was over an eighteen month period of recording and we didn’t want to combine all the recordings, because it would be like some . . . you know, we don’t like double albums, and we didn’t want to tax the listener’s attention time-span . . . so, erm, we started off with one record, and the ones left over we sort of managed to put together. But we are happy with how they work together, both records, I think.
Chris: So, hearing it like that it sounds like they were almost outtakes that you . . .
Chris: …or left-overs that…
Ed: No, no, it’s not. That is one of the main things that we’re really trying to get across, it’s not outtakes, it’s like…
Colin: We’d go in for like a week, like every day from 4 o’clock through to 11 or 12, working on the tracklistings for Kid A and with all the songs that we’d recorded, desperately trying to put in the songs that are on the next album, and we just couldn’t make an order fit. So there’s absolutely no sense of these other songs on Amnesiac being left-overs.
What, Colin? “So there’s absolutely no sense of these other songs on Amnesiac being left-overs.” Wait—about five minutes ago you said, “and the ones left over we sort of managed to put together.” Wanna try that again?
I think the simple fact they felt the need for a media blitz speaks volumes. It’s the rare artist that can be completely objective about the quality of his or her output, and it’s only natural that Radiohead didn’t want all those long hours in the studio to go down the drain. And there are some great songs on Amnesiac, certainly enough for a killer EP. Alternatively, they could have held those three or four songs in reserve for a later album, something Radiohead has done more than a few times over the years. If you take “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” and replace the three turkeys on Hail to the Thief, you’d wind up with an absolute masterpiece.
Amnesiac has its share of reject pile nominees, but it’s not a complete waste of time. And though I hate comparing one album to another, Radiohead opened the door to that criticism with Thom Yorke’s “another take” comment, so here goes: Amnesiac doesn’t come close to Kid A in terms of quality, passion, artistic courage or originality. Amnesiac is a combination of a few great songs that wouldn’t have fit with the textures and themes of Kid A, one or two mildly interesting pieces weakened by inappropriate embellishments, a couple of less-than-successful electronic experiments, one completely unnecessary do-over and another nominee for the worst thing Radiohead ever did.
“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” kicks things off, a title that reflects the song’s sonic environment: claustrophobic, with rising pressures building around you as the song progresses. The scanty lyrics are the lead character’s response to those growing pressures, the feeling of being crowded out by society and the little it has to offer:
After years of waiting
And you realize you’re looking
Looking in the wrong place
I’m a reasonable man
Get off my case, get off my case, get off my case
The title is said to refer to the Paris taxicabs of the era, so the logical assumption is that the character is a taxi driver, having to scrounge and scrape for a living because his life plans fell through. The song begins with Phil Selway playing a syncopated riff on kitchen pots that feels like a man nervously tapping his fingers on a metallic surface, waiting for a call from dispatch. The addition of bass and synthesizer that forms the dominant theme seems to shrink the space, making Thom Yorke’s first few lines sound like internal dialogue. At the point where he sings the phrase, “you realize,” additional sounds enter from all sides, as if the driver has received his orders and has moved into the traffic queue. Phil Selway’s kitchen pots make occasional reappearances, like the sound of a clock moving in and out of the perceptual field, adding both unity and tension. Around the two-and-a-half minute mark, the piece breaks pattern and becomes an eerie soundscape of electronic rhythms and moaning sounds, creating a feeling of anxiety in the listener that is not at all relieved by the reappearance of the kitchen pot pattern, now colored by the eeriness. At this point, the dominant theme returns and the claustrophobic feeling is intensified by the emergence of a smattering of human voices—perhaps people jamming themselves into his cab, perhaps the bullshitting that goes on between drivers at the taxi stand. The tension is so great now that when our taxi driver returns, the repetition of “I’m a reasonable man/get off my case/get off my case” sounds like a man ready to go Travis Bickle on us. Although Amnesiac has its deficiencies, you certainly won’t find them in the opening track—a dark, defiant and well-thought-out piece that is undeniably captivating.
Nor will you find any flaws in “Pyramid Song,” a grand dirge featuring an outstanding string arrangement courtesy of Jonny Greenwood and the acoustics of Dorchester Abbey. The inspiration for the song seems to have come from multiple sources: the music from Charles Mingus’ “Freedom” (more in the feel than in the specific arrangement); the lyrics from an art exhibit of Egyptian underworld art; and The Divine Comedy. From those diverse sources, Thom Yorke formed a set of lyrics that melds the mythical journey to Styx with notions of cyclical time:
I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And 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 row-boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
The first rendition of the verse features Thom Yorke playing simple piano chords, occasionally slowing the rhythm by delaying the expected beat, reflecting both the wonder and uncertainty of the journey into the afterlife. In deep background we hear hints of strings and faint voices, but the overall impression is one of deep stillness. The ondes Martenot then appears with its rising swells reminiscent of sirens while Phil Selway enters to cement the rhythm in the unusual time signature of 9/8. The song glides forward majestically as we close our eyes to take in the sheer beauty of the arrangement until the tempo slows to support the repetition of the line, “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt,” a comforting thought for listeners conditioned to fear death. The final, brief passage features the beauty of the string arrangement with ondes and Phil Selway in strong supporting roles.
It would have been NICE to give the listener a few moments to let “Pyramid Song” sink in, but the lovely mood is cruelly interrupted by the immediate and contextually annoying sound of electronic beats. This bit of track order rudeness does not dispose one to consider “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” in a favorable light, but even after listening to it in relative isolation I find the track cold and uninviting. The lyrics, spoken through a processed voice reciting the qualities of the infinite variety of doors, seem like the philosophical meanderings common to the hippie movement—“Doors, man. Think about it. Doors. I mean, doors are like so far out—or in. Wow.” Definitely bonus track material for Radiohead fanatics.
The mood doesn’t pick up much with “You and Whose Army,” allegedly a sort of protest against the betrayal of socialist principles by the business-friendly regime of the now-discredited Tony Blair, though you can hardly discern that from the lyrics, where ghost horses are on the march. The most interesting aspect of the performance is Thom Yorke’s choice of tone—a lazy, slurred performance that contradicts the machismo implied by the title and forms a pointed commentary on the lack of resolve on the part of the electorate to get their fat asses out of their comfy chairs and take action. Even with that inspired choice of performance style, “You and Whose Army” isn’t a particular favorite of mine: the opening passage is as slow as molasses and the mid-song change using the now tiresome pattern of soft-LOUD fails to generate much excitement.
I read that Mojo described the guitar riff that dominates “I Might Be Wrong” as “venomous.” No, it’s not. The guitar riff on “Electioneering” is venomous; this one’s just “okay.” “I Might Be Wrong” was one of the singles from the album, a choice I find baffling as the beat is painfully repetitive and Thom Yorke comes down solidly on the anti-enunciation side of vocal phrasing techniques. The break in the action—a shift to relative quiet without that incredibly annoying beat—comes too late to make the save and really doesn’t add all that much. The lyrics are supposed to be about a time of personal crisis in Thom Yorke’s life, but if that’s the case, one can only conclude he wanted to keep the details a secret.
Then, out of the fucking blue, we get “Knives Out.” This amazing piece of work almost didn’t make the cut, as Radiohead spent 373 days recording it before realizing that it really didn’t need all the embellishment they were trying to force onto its structure. I don’t have access to their Myers-Briggs profiles, but it’s safe to assume that Radiohead is an introvert-dominated outfit. Introverts are often great musicians and composers because their natural preoccupation with depth can lead to rich improvisations and compositions. On the other hand, introverts can often get lost in the maze-like passages in their brains and make the simple much more difficult than it needs to be. The overworking of “Knives Out” was probably one of those maze experiences where the group was in total denial about the value of simple-and-straightforward.
The cannibalistic lyrics are deliberately designed to express strong emotions concerning the too-human tendency to screw people over and vilify those who have left our lives for other experiences. Some of the lines are delivered with classically British black humor (“His blood is frozen/Still there is no point in letting it go to waste”), but Thom Yorke’s dominant tone is one of mournful regret for those who just can’t let go of their anger or jealousy at the departed husband, friend, lover, employee.
Tell you what—listen to “Knives Out” while reading stories of how Trump is doing is damnedest to erase Obama’s legacy and you’ll begin to appreciate how pointless competition can become a sick obsession.
The music to “Knives Out” is quite warm in contrast to the coldness of the lyrics. Here the guitars dominate with lovely arpeggios stretching the length of the fretboard, while the beat is closer to Brazilian-flavored jazz. I love the duet in the break, especially the finish when the two guitars lock into the Em6/Em7 pattern and play an extended riff on the bottom strings. The chords to “Knives Out” are actually quite clever, and Radiohead makes excellent use of the minor-to-major seventh combination to raise the tension. Easily Thom Yorke’s strongest vocal on Amnesiac, “Knives Out” is a sterling example of a song that flows as naturally as a stream while allowing for sufficient musical variation.
Now we confront Exhibit A for the argument that Amnesiac is the poor sister to Kid A: the reprise of “Morning Bell,” retitled “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” so we can tell the difference without looking at the album covers. This version isn’t half as interesting as the far more rhythmic version on Kid A, and its appearance in the middle of the album implies something “new and different.” That is consumer fraud! There oughta be a law! “It is illegal to attempt to foist onto the consumer a different version of the original song without labeling it a bonus track.”
We go back to truly original material with “Dollars and Cents,” a song that falls into the mixed-feeling category. I love the work of the rhythm section and the late night jazz club feel they produce, but the embellishments on this song seem unusually undisciplined, and Thom Yorke delivers a less-than-satisfying vocal. The lyrics are an unbridled attack on the system of societal control that brings us war and encourages greed while steadily destroying the environment. I have no problem with the lyrics, but they needed more aggressive musical support than they get here. It’s followed by “Hunting Bears,” a brief instrumental featuring lots of guitar squeak and synthesized sound, which in turn is followed by “Like Spinning Plates,” a piece that serves to demonstrate that Radiohead had spent way too much time playing with their electronic toys.
Amnesiac ends with a thud with the truly awful “Life in a Glasshouse,” a song about the tiresome aspects of fame, particularly the lack of privacy that goes hand-in-hand with success. I totally agree with the sentiments expressed in the song, as I think our elevation of artists to superhuman status is absolutely appalling, and the impact on the artist—particularly an introverted artist—is both emotionally devastating and paranoia-inducing:
Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat
Well of course I’d like to stay and chew the fat
Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat
Only only only only only only only only only only
There’s someone listening in
Once again, the problem lies in the embellishments, in this case provided by the Humphrey Lyttleton Band, who were enlisted to add a New Orleans jazz funeral touch to the piece. The counterpoint phrases HLB provides through the first part of the song aren’t bad (the clarinetist is really quite good), but when they ramp up to full volume to play a New Orleans funeral march over the final repetition of closing verse, they bury Thom Yorke’s vocal in cacophonous thunder. The result is a confusing mess of contradictory intentions and style, as if you walked into a house with three radios playing music from different stations at maximum volume. Radiohead and New Orleans jazz is a combination that works as well as peanut butter and tuna, and I’m absolutely befuddled that they didn’t enlist jazz musicians with a more modern bent whose styles would have been more in sync with their experimental leanings. The choice is even more curious when you consider that one of the greatest funereal jazz pieces of all time is “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” by none other than Charles Mingus, perhaps the greatest modern jazz composer of them all, and the alleged influence for “Pyramid Song.”
Kid A and Amnesiac will forever be paired due to the simultaneous recording of the tracks, and I find it very interesting that many Radiohead fans and critics have chosen sides as to which album is superior. I have no doubt in my mind that Kid A wins that battle, but I also know that many people were put off by what they perceived to be its abstract lyrics, grating sounds and fluid structures. Amnesiac certainly contains its share of “experimental music,” but also features songs with more familiar structures and straightforward arrangements. Those who reacted violently to the shock of Kid A found Amnesiac more comforting and coherent, an entirely understandable response. I find Amnesiac wanting; others have the right to differently.
But let’s put things in perspective. Even though Amnesiac is not my favorite Radiohead album, it’s still Radiohead, and I’d rather listen to a less-than-perfect Radiohead effort than 99% of the music produced in the 21st Century.
It says a lot about our world that most of the buzz surrounding the release of In Rainbows had to do with its implications for the music industry.
I hate the phrase, “music industry.” It calls up pictures of mindless automatons in Chinese sweat studios manufacturing music for the masses, filling orders from rich and powerful men based on marketing data that isolates the features most likely to entice consumers to cough up the dough. The big companies that control the manufacture and distribution of most of the music released in the 21st Century shuddered at the arrival of a pay-what-you-want download model. Those who despise the music industry and its relentless repression of independent artists cheered to the heavens. “Free at last, free at last, thank fuck almighty, we are free at last.”
A cynic would say, “Yeah, and Radiohead got a ton of free press from the controversy, which fueled demand and increased sales.” They did make more money from In Rainbows than their studio releases, having removed some of the middlemen from the chow line. That improved profit margin may have raised a few eyebrows and several pointed questions, but that’s an understandably skeptical reaction to an ancient ethical dilemma. The uncomfortable relationship between art and money has existed since the days when artists had to kiss the asses of wealthy patrons to have any hope of realizing their visions. Money can be either a blessed liberator or a pair of golden shackles for an artist, and every artist has had to compromise artistic purity from time to time in order to eat and pay the bills. At this point, Radiohead was a well-established band whose live performances sold out in seconds, so the years they spent dealing with the devils at EMI gave them a distinct advantage over the grass-roots-based indie artist—they had the power, resources and reputation to pull it off. So, hooray for Radiohead for striking a blow for independence, but striking that blow didn’t involve all that much risk from a financial perspective.
The artistic risk was much greater. Think about it—what if In Rainbows had turned out to be a crappy album? The people who follow Radiohead do so in large part because of their sterling record of artistic integrity. If they had tried to foist a half-assed piece of garbage onto the listening public, the trust between artist and audience would have been shattered—and given the intensity of Radiohead fans, the outrage would have been off-the-charts. In a matter of days there would be scores of opportunists opening online shops to capitalize on the disaster, selling t-shirts emblazoned with bitterness: “I PAID WHAT I WANTED AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS SHITTY RADIOHEAD ALBUM.”
In a world where the news seems to consist of one tragedy after another, I am delighted to report that In Rainbows turned out to be the rare happy ending to the story. Whatever you paid for it, it was worth it and then some. In Rainbows is a masterpiece of musical composition, a rhythmic wonderland and a testament to the sacred stubbornness of the artist. Radiohead worked long and hard on In Rainbows, scrapping material from the first sessions because they didn’t measure up, recasting old tunes into new ones and testing out the songs with live audiences to gauge reaction and develop new possibilities. And though Thom Yorke has given at least three different explanations as to what it’s all about, In Rainbows has a very strong central theme—the dynamic between the transient nature of life and our conflicting desire for permanence. Rainbows are stunningly beautiful, transient manifestations of nature—we all stop what we’re doing when a rainbow appears and revel in the wonder. As we gaze at its magic, we wish with all our hearts and souls that it will last forever, and when it fades into a background of dirt-gray clouds, we feel a sense of loss, a shadow that darkens our perspective as the real world slinks back into view. It is sadly ironic that graphic versions of rainbows are peddled as symbols of hope, for rainbows are the ultimate transitory experience, leaving us grasping at nothing but water vapor. Many of the songs on In Rainbows explore the temporary of nature of things to which we vainly attempt to attach permanence: relationships (why do we say “I will love you forever” when that’s impossible?), knowledge (my parents grew up with the absolute certainty that Pluto was a planet), technology (in this case, videotape), and the ultimate transitory experience, life itself.
“15 Step” is the perfect introduction to the concept of transience, with its 5/4 time throwing the listener off-balance a bit, a mild version of the disorientation you feel after you get off the carnival ride. Thom Yorke comes in after six measures instead of four or eight, another blow to expectations. The rhythmic arrangement blends digital and human beats in such a compelling way that I often find myself zeroing in on the rhythm track on this song, trying to filter out the voices, guitars and sundry sound effects. I do this quite often on In Rainbows, as Phil Selway’s work on this album should have won a damned Grammy all by itself. In the opening passage, when Phil replaces the programming with live drums on the repetition of the first verse, the slight shift in texture changes the mood of the song from “fridge buzz” to “genuine human angst.” Thom Yorke sings the repeated opening verse over that background of beats, his in-the-groove phrasing serving to intensify the rhythm. The lyrics double down on the sense of disorientation, vocalizing the self-blaming nature of the modern neurotic in search of a solution—a solution that relies on cliché-based self-help that is more of a band-aid than a revelation. And if that doesn’t work, you can always point the finger at someone else for screwing up your life:
How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then you cut the string
The issue facing the narrator is a relationship problem—at least according to the narrator. It could also be the frustration we feel when the relationship we’re in goes to shit because the other person has the audacity to change. Goddamn, things were going so well and you had to—choke—gasp—fucking change on me! The nerve of some people!
You used to be alright
Did the cat get your tongue?
Did your string come undone?
As the argument proceeds, even the narrator realizes he’s reading from an archetypal script and his babble collapses into “Etcetera, etcetera.” Only then does he finally get it: relationships are transitory, just like today’s definitions of what’s hot and what’s not (“Fads for whatever/15 steps/then a sheer drop”). The realization that relationships go awry when you find the two of you are out of step is captured in the reference to the song title—fifteen steps reflects both the time signature and a structure that feels incomplete. Most popular songs are structured around an even number of measures to a verse, emphasizing wholeness—and most popular songs are either 12 or 16 bars. 16-bar auditions are a staple of musical theater, and fifteen bars is what happens when the big cane appears from the wings and yanks your sorry ass off the stage.
“15 Step” is also special because its dynamics clearly demonstrate how the sophistication in Radiohead’s approach to music had deepened over time. The intensity of the music grows gradually over the course of the song, aided and abetted by a children’s chorus, layered instrumentation, louder bass and the intensification of percussion. It’s a long way from Radiohead’s early love affair with soft-LOUD, and the more gradual build leads to a more satisfying conclusion.
We now interrupt this review for a story that illustrates how the lyrics to any song can have deep meaning for people even when the meaning they derive from the lyrics has no connection to the intent of the lyricist.
In my review of Pablo Honey, I introduced one of those introduced one of my not-very-famous sidebars that irritate and delight my readers: “Insert ‘Bodysnatchers’ into my biopic soundtrack at the moment Ali and I first made deep eye contact.” I shall now explain that curious statement.
First and foremost, “Bodysnatchers” is one of those most intense songs in the Radiohead catalog—fucking fierce. I can’t think of a better song that captures the way our relationship feels—unrelentingly intense, constantly driving, always on the edge of orgasm, moving from one peak to another. It’s the kind of relationship I always wanted and spent years trying to find.
Alicia, on the other hand, had never thought about relationships in that way. She grew up a good girl from an upper-middle-class family in Madrid and assumed someday she’d just get married to a male member of the same social strata. She’d dated and fucked a few guys but didn’t think much of it. When she met me, she was preparing for a life where she would face the challenge any modern Catholic woman has to face: balancing career and babies.
We met at one of those boring business conferences, and initially I sized her up as a superficial loser and put her out of my mind. Little did I know that over the first couple of days at the conference, she developed what was for her a strange attraction to a woman (me). On the third day, I got bored and left the conference to go outside and smoke. She followed me out there, asked for a light and tried to engage me in small talk. I hate small talk, so my impression of her as a waste of time hardened. When I started to head back, she followed and asked me if I wanted to have a drink after the conference that day. I really didn’t want to spend any more time with her than I had to, but I remembered my improv theatre training and said “yes” to her offer. I checked her out a little more thoroughly during the conference and admitted that she was physically very attractive, but her good girl energy turned me off—and it’s always about the energy, not the body.
So we had a drink and engaged in the usual superficialities—where did you grow up, what kind of music do you like, what do you do in your spare time, etcetera, etcetera. Some time during our second round, she interrupted the flow of the universe and said to me, “You are very beautiful and I-I-I am—I am attracted to you.” Filtering the message through the loser lens, I thought, “Oh, boy, another woman in crisis, wondering if she’s a (gasp) lesbian.” I decided to put an end to the small talk and give her the straight scoop. “That’s nice of you to say. But before you take those thoughts any further, let me tell you a little bit more about myself.” Well, I didn’t tell her just a little bit more but the whole shebang—bisexuality, BDSM, dominance and submission, the kind of relationship I demanded and the absolute insistence that I wouldn’t settle for anything less. I ended it with something like, “If you’re attracted to women, I suggest you start with someone a bit more mainstream.” All through this time, I held eye contact, wanting her to appreciate the vast differences between us. It was hard to interpret her wide-eyed look, but since I thought I’d never see her again, I didn’t press for an explanation.
Fast-forward to a few years later where we find the happy couple entwined in each other’s arms after another wild night of totally satisfying sex. The fuck playlist was still running, and “Bodysnatchers” popped up. After the first verse, she sat up and said, “That’s exactly how I felt when you told me who you were! I was overwhelmed, stupid, fighting inside.”
I do not
What it is
I’ve done wrong
Full of holes
Check for pulse
Blink your eyes
1 for yes
2 for no
I have no idea what I am talking about
I am trapped in this body and can’t get out
Obviously, Thom Yorke wasn’t thinking of two bisexual broads considering the possibility of banging each other when he wrote the lyrics to “Bodysnatchers,” but he did describe Alicia’s state of mind when I lowered the boom on her. From Songfacts:
In an article in the New York Times December 9, 2007, Thom Yorke said this song was inspired by Victorian ghost stories, The Stepford Wives and his own feeling of “your physical consciousness trapped without being able to connect fully with anything else.”
I think every person living in the first world has had that feeling of complete disconnection from the realities of day-to-day life—we live too much of our lives as captives to the norm, faking our way through the bullshit and engaging in meaningless conversation that engages the vocal cords without engaging brain or soul. I don’t think a day goes by at work when I don’t have a moment where I feel my body has been snatched and taken over by a coldly professional alien automaton. The fierceness of “Bodysnatchers” is less about the underlying sexual connotation, and more about the fierce, toxic damage we do to ourselves when we allow our bodies to be snatched by behavioral expectations (“You killed the sound/removed backbone/A pale imitation/With the edges/sawn off”). Shit, we’ve all sat in meetings and experienced this:
I have no idea what you are talking about
Your mouth moves only with someone’s hand up your ass
And according to the never-optimistic Mr. Yorke, the experience of bodysnatching is endemic to the human race, the incurable cancer of modern existence:
Has the light gone out for you?
Because the light’s gone for me
It is the 21st century
Bleak outlook aside, the music of “Bodysnatchers” is a first-tier thrill ride. The aggressive distortion that opens the song expands into a stereo guitar duet that absolutely burns. We get a brief break from the distortion in the bridge, but the rising emotional tension in the lyrics demands a reprise, so Radiohead ramps up the power and builds to a thunderous crescendo with Thom Yorke giving us a triumphant rebel yell before the shift back to the main riff. All throughout the song, Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood fan the flames with a relentless rhythmic attack, and Thom Yorke’s one-take vocal moves from a steady, sardonic tone to close to manic as the feeling of disconnection increases. Personal meaning aside, “Bodysnatchers” works on many levels, and the let-it-all-out energy combined with a message of modern frustration is a synergistic delight.
Moving from “Bodysnatchers” to “Nude” is like stepping off a crowded Midtown Manhattan sidewalk in the middle of rush hour and entering a luxurious, sound-proofed spa staffed with gentle, smiling souls who welcome you with warm hearts and the scent of sandalwood. The waves of sound from the Ondes Martenot embrace you like a warm blanket and you feel all tension in your body vanish into the oil-scented atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s gentle voice, working at the higher end of his range accompanied only by Colin Greenwood’s bass, adds to the picture of a soothing landscape. Aaaah! That’s nice! Feel all that ugly stress and tension melt away!
Here’s a tip: don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, because you’ll run screaming out of the spa to the nearest Duane Reade for a quick Prozac fix:
Don’t get any big ideas
they’re not gonna happen
You paint yourself white
and feel up with noise
but there’ll be something missing
Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone
Now that you feel it, you don’t
You’ve gone off the rails
So don’t get any big ideas
they’re not going to happen
You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking
Arggh! I want my spa back! After the synergy of words and music you find in “Bodysnatcher,” “Nude” can throw you for a loop if you hear the music and think “massage” instead of “mourning.” It is an absolutely beautiful song with thoroughly depressing lyrics. To be fair, the colors in the song do get darker as the song proceeds, but my approach to this song will forever be one of concentrating on the lovely guitar work, the warmth of the Ondes and Thom Yorke’s dynamic vocal.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is another thing entirely. The storyline reads like an excerpt from someone’s dream diary, and since weird things always happen in dreams, you’re better prepared for the bizarre encounter at the center of the story. The path that gets you there consists of guitar arpeggi, building from a duet to a trio to a quartet. The arpeggi are superbly executed, weaving in and out of harmony, adding a variety of counterpoints to the main theme along the way. Thom Yorke’s reverb-accentuated voice drifts over the guitars, adding to the feeling that you’re listening to someone’s dream. The dreamscape places the narrator in constant movement, following the lure of a pair of eyes, perhaps the seductive siren of myth. The music builds to a peak—guitars coming at you from every direction, Thom’s voice soaring above his lead vocal in the ethereal distance, Phil Selway subtly diversifying his attack—when suddenly the rhythmic support vanishes and the arpeggi shift to a sound that mimics vibraphone and harp, creating a muffled soundscape to reflect the muffled sounds you hear underwater. Ah, poor dreamer!
I get eaten by the worms
And weird fishes
Picked over by the worms
And weird fishes
The build that gathers over the closing lines (“Hit the bottom and escape/Escape . . . ) becomes thoroughly claustrophobic, as if the pressure of the ocean is weighing mightily on our unlucky friend. A piece of intense originality marked by a stunning arrangement, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a unique and oddly enchanting listening experience.
We now move to “All I Need” and a violent disagreement with the self-styled experts. Rolling Stone called it one of “the most intense love songs [Thom Yorke] has ever sung,” and Robert Sandall of The Telegraph echoed the same sentiment. That is not what I get at all—what I get is “Creep Redux.” I find this dramatic monologue far more terrifying than Pablo Honey’s signature song, a depiction of the sick fixation of the stalking rapist-murderer and the terrifying love he professes for his intended victim. The narrator is obsessed with both the woman he has targeted and the power of his seething rage—a power that compensates for his truly deserved low self-worth:
I’m the next act
waiting in the wings
I’m an animal
Trapped in your hot car
I am all the days
that you choose to ignore
Taking his obvious self-loathing even further, he refers to himself as “an insect” in the second verse. I’m sorry, but no one who revels in their own debasement can truly love another person, so calling “All I Need” a love song is both absurd and offensive. The chilling lines in the chorus—“I’m in the middle of your picture/Lying in the reeds”—bring back memories of a crime I read about when living in San Francisco in my late teens. A woman out for a morning jog on a trail somewhere in Contra Costa County was raped, beaten and murdered by a sick fuck who ambushed her from the reeds bordering the jogging path—the poor gazelle on the savannah, the inhuman predator scouting his prey for the right moment to strike. The image of the unaware and unprepared woman struggling in sheer panic as the monster devoured his prey still haunts me to this day. That could have been me. That could be me almost anytime, anywhere.
As to why the critics mentioned above heard this as a love song, I would suggest you look between their legs and see if there’s a hole or a peculiar-looking protuberance.
Although the experience of “All I Need” is a difficult one, I have to give Radiohead credit for exposing the evil in too many male minds and refusing to show any sympathy or understanding towards such a loathsome figure. The ominous main motif calls up images of someone lurking in the darkness . . . the fade, powered by Jonny Greenwood’s ingenious use of overdubbed violas playing every note of the scale creates a cacophonous mix reflecting the overload of a mis-wired brain . . . and let’s face it—nobody does creeps as well as Thom Yorke.
That’s a compliment, Thom!
Although Radiohead rarely goes “lite,” we do need to change the mood here, and “Faust Arp” is just the thing. Opening with soft arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Thom on low volume, the introduction of a string quartet temporarily obscures the lyrics but the sacrifice is more than worth it, given the sheer beauty of the string arrangement. Those lyrics describe a man getting ready for work, engaging in an idiot monologue as he considers his station in life. Apparently he’s done his best to mimic the behavior of the brain-dead drones who dominate the workplace, but he simply lacks the right stuff—good for him!—to make a success of it:
I’m tingling, tingling, tingling
it’s what you feel not
what you ought to, what you ought to
reasonable and sensible
dead from the neck up
I guess I’m stuffed, stuffed, stuffed
we thought you had it in you
but not, not, not
for no real reason
He readies himself for work as if he’s preparing to take the stage (“Squeeze the tubes and empty bottles/and take a bow, take a bow, take a bow”), emphasizing the drain on soul and spirit. “No real reason” is his epitaph, a life of “duplicate and triplicate/plastic bags and/duplicate and triplicate.” We leave him with “a head full of feathers . . . melted to butter.” The acoustic guitar and string arrangement, tied to a chord pattern that opens in a minor key before shifting to a bluesy seventh chord to arrive at the declining G-chord (G, G/F, G/Eb/G/D) of the closing pattern generates a not-quite-overwhelming but touching sadness about another life wasted in the modern mines.
“Reckoner” is one of those pieces I loved the first time I heard it, a reaction that certainly didn’t arise from lyrics, which I couldn’t make out at all. After reading the lyrics, I decided they didn’t matter—“Reckoner” is primarily a musical composition where the human voice is one of many instruments, designed to create mood rather than meaning. The song opens with textural contrasts—a multi-faceted percussive foundation in a stark, reverberated background soon share the soundscape with warm, mellow guitar filling the rhythmic pockets. Despite the sophistication of the percussion, the call is primitive—a studio-enhanced version of a drum circle. When Thom Yorke enters with his high falsetto, the effect is to combine the primitive with the spiritual, and even though you know you’re listening to Radiohead, it feels more like you’re listening to something ancient—music created in the distant past by early humans gathered around a fire or participating in a ritual to honor nature or the gods. As the song proceeds and more voices join in, you feel drawn to the alluring soundscape without quite understanding why. The lyrics are sketchy, but what I get is that the song is an ode to the essence of the human experience—ebb-and-flow, join-and-separate, forever in transition, forever in transience:
Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore
Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore
In contrast to the stunning originality of “Reckoner,” “House of Cards” seems rather pedestrian until you realize, “OMIGOD. A Radiohead song about sex!” It gets even more interesting when you hear words describing an alternative form of relationship—one based on sheer desire as opposed to conventional relationships built on the “house of cards” of traditional role definitions and garden-variety expectations:
I don’t want to be your friend
I just want to be your lover
No matter how it ends
No matter how it starts
No courting period, no expectation of forever, just two people choosing to be with each other as long as it’s mutually satisfying. There’s none of this “friends with benefits” bullshit, as the narrator isn’t the least bit interested in having a buddy—all they have is the irresistible link of mutual attraction. The repetition of the word “denial” implies that the narrator is running up against some form of conventional guilt concerning his proposition (the woman is married, after all), but the reference to “voltage spikes” indicates she is consumed with explosive desire—and as Blake warned us, “Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse an unacted desire.” The music feels slightly sardonic, gently nudging forward with a simple guitar chords over a carnal background of deep bass and simmering electronic sounds . . . a well-constructed composition that reveals a more satisfying aspect of transience.
“House of Cards” is followed by another song about relationships even more transient than affairs . . . the experience of the weekend meat market. The British have become notorious for binge drinking, and apparently, stately and respected Oxford is quite the party town. The lyrics of “Jigsaw Falling into Place” paint a picture of a crowd slamming down shots, howling and growling to the music, imagining themselves as megastars via slurred and sloppy karaoke, screaming in ecstasy when their distorted faces fill the high-def screens—all joined in the shared pursuit of boorish obliviousness. This is NOT my idea of a good time:
The walls are bending shape
You got a cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission
Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you’re comatose
Yeah, baby, let’s get comatose! What the fuck is that all about? Using booze as a papal indulgence to forgive the sins you’re dying to commit? Sins are way more fun when you’re fully conscious of sinning! It’s just as likely that his object of desire uses booze to avoid true human intimacy, ironically creating a strange bond with her fellow party animals—a noisy conspiracy to use the illusion of togetherness to compensate for the complete absence of authenticity.
A crowded night club is the loneliest place in the world.
The song opens with a snappy acoustic guitar reminiscent of Mason Williams, and when Colin and Phil join in to solidify the rhythm, you might think for a moment that you’re about to hear Radiohead’s version of “Classical Gas.” That expectation dies a horrible death with the syllabic two-part harmony that precedes the verses, intensifying the melancholy feel of the minor key. Those voices accompany Thom’s rapid-fire, low intensity lead vocal delivered in a timbre that sounds like he’s had a few drinks himself, but not a sufficient amount to interfere with his mating mission. The break after the second verse adds a guitar duet, filling the sound field and giving the listener the illusion of acceleration. Midway through the third verse Thom jumps an octave just at the moment when he confesses that he has no intention of losing his fucking mind, and hey, babe, can we please get each other off before you pass out?
The beat goes round and round
I never really got there
I just pretended that I had
Words are blunt instruments
Words are a sawn off shotgun
Come on and let it out (4)
Before you run away from me
Before you’re lost between the notes
Just as you take the mike
Just as you dance, dance, dance
This weird fish has wriggled off your hook, Thommy Boy, and good riddance! The next instrumental passage features stereo acoustic guitars returning to the forefront, and damn, do they sound sweet! Bittersweet is probably more like it, as the never-to-be lovers exchange woozy “what if” looks as night fades into daybreak and the paired vocals return to emphasize the distance between them. “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is a vivid, you-are-there experience that gives you all the reason in the world for never wanting to be in with the in-crowd, but more importantly, it exposes the strange barriers human beings erect to avoid genuine intimacy.
Until In Rainbows, Radiohead had never recorded an album-closing song that cinched the deal for me. That yearning is more than satisfied with “Videotape,” a deeply moving ode to human transience and loneliness. This dramatic monologue by a dying man recording his last good-byes on soon-to-be-obsolete technology never fails to leave me shaking with emotion, not so much because the old man is dying, but that he chooses to die separate and alone.
The song opens with elementary piano chords tethered to the 4/4 beat, making us conscious of the slow, inexorable movement of time. Thom Yorke enters, weakening the power of his voice to mirror the wasting body. For the next minute, all we hear are the mournful piano, bass notes and a man aware that his last moments are at hand. He muses about the Christian myth of heaven and hell, not taking either very seriously. What matters is the medium of his message, a living testament he can leave behind in the world of the living, in defiance of the finality of death:
When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape, my videotape
Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he’s reaching up to grab me
This is one for the good days
And I have it all here
In red, blue, green
Red, blue, green
You are my center when I spin away
Out of control on videotape
I interpret that last couplet to mean that as his image “spins away” on the wheels of the tape, he is “outside the bounds of control” by daring to exist after death in video form. On the word “videotape,” however, Phil Selway enters with a two-beat drum pattern that mimics the sound of a VHS cartridge with a compromised mechanism or wrinkled tape, a wry commentary that his dream of defiant immortality is as mythical as heaven and hell. As he repeats the dying mantra “on videotape,” the sound of two voices humming in octaves fills part of the background, a simple touch that deepens the sense of sadness; you also hear a faint gasping, indicating slightly labored breathing. As the drum pattern shifts to a longer roll (perhaps indicating that the tape is stuck), the man gathers his thoughts and makes the saddest admission of all: though his last breath is near, he still fears other people more than death itself:
This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can’t do it face to face
I’m talking to you for . . .
I can think of nothing more tragic than leaving this life still clinging to fears of other human beings, too embarrassed by guilt, regret or the weakened state of our bodies to allow people to get close to us. We live our lives in separate shells called bodies, craving intimacy but doing all we can to protect ourselves from experiencing it, and forever avoiding those fellow human beings who live with the same fears, anxieties and flaws we are so eager to hide. Here a man uses technology to build a moat around his thoughts and feelings, but human beings have created hundreds of low-tech stratagems to deny others access to who we really are. Loneliness may be the essential human condition, but it is a condition we choose—a self-imposed isolation that is the ultimate human tragedy.
Though the published lyrics complete that last line with “after it’s too late,” on the recording the man abruptly changes the subject and shifts to the bravado of the dying man—don’t worry about me, I’m fine—anything to avoid sharing an honest, human feeling:
No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen
The background music fades in intensity, then rises and falls as the tape continues to skip and the sound of mic pops enter the scene until finally, the sound narrows to the relentless march of piano and bass before ending on a single piano note of a suddenly terminated measure. The utter sadness I feel when I hear that last note is actually a culmination of all that has come before—a beautiful and sensitive piece of music that reaches our most basic emotions surrounding our all-too brief existence, capturing the essential fragility of the human experience.
Putting aside all the hoo-hah surrounding its release, In Rainbows is one of the few truly great albums of our time, a testament to the value of deep collaboration and an affirmation of the value of artistic commitment. The quality of composition is first-rate, the execution superb, the songs diverse and intensely satisfying. But what really makes In Rainbows special is its inherent timelessness. Ed O’Brien probably said it best when asked about the lyrics: “They were universal. There wasn’t a political agenda. It’s being human.” If great art is defined by its ability to elucidate something essential regarding the human condition, In Rainbows certainly qualifies.