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.
Although the title Hail to the Thief refers to the stolen 2000 U. S. presidential election and the subsequent madness known as the War on Terror, Thom Yorke has strenuously denied that the album is in any way a political statement.
Hmm. Let’s check the veracity of that bold assertion, she said, admiring her facility with pompous synonyms.
If you compare the songs on Hail to the Thief to the protest songs in Phil Ochs’ catalog, Yorke has a point. Phil’s anti-establishment songs fall into three categories: those dealing with current affairs (murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Chicago convention riots, the Vietnam War); those celebrating the people who “fought the good fight” against the moneychangers and warmongers; and those calling for systemic upheaval. If you use those three qualities to define the protest song genre, none of the songs on Hail to the Thief qualify as protest songs. “I Will” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” come closest, but the lyrics make no mention of the specific events motivating the lyrics—you have to research the backstory to figure it out. There are no references anywhere to heroes of the Resistance, and unlike Phil Ochs and his fellow travelers, Radiohead doesn’t spend a second arguing for massive socio-political change.
Score one for Thom!
Stronger support for the argument that Hail to the Thief is apolitical can be found in the songs themselves. If there is an underlying theme to Hail to the Thief, it’s helplessness. Many of the songs capture the common human reaction to the nightmare of modern politics and governance—WHAT THE FUCK?—and the natural consequence of that reaction: LEAVE ME THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Screw trying to make things better with these clowns in charge; I can’t do a damn thing about it so I’m just going to blow a big protective bubble around me and the people I love and wait this shit out. Ah, but there’s a catch! As we’ll see when we explore the individual tracks, there are unpleasant consequences to crawling into the cave and sealing the exits. If there’s a dominant mood on Hail to the Thief, it’s angst, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.”
For the last year, I have existed in a constant state of helplessness and angst because I chose to become politically active, something I never thought possible. Check my bio—my life priorities are sex, music and baseball, not fucking politics! The appalling rise of xenophobic, homophobic hatred in the form of Donald Trump led me to actively support Hillary Clinton, and we all know how that turned out: the day after the election, I renounced my American citizenship. I hardly had time to catch my breath when xenophobic hatred reared its ugly head in France through the fear-mongering fascist Marine LePen, so for the last three months I’ve spent most of my spare time supporting En Marche to secure the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. Now that Macron has won and I don’t have to sell the house and find another EU country where I can hang my whips, chains and extensive collection of leather lingerie, I am completely done with fucking politics . . . at least for the next five years.
Here’s the thing—I know that my efforts didn’t make one fucking bit of difference: Macron still would have won had I slept through the whole campaign. My activity was simply a psychological reaction to a perceived threat, and I chose the fight response instead of the flight response. Like Prozac, it probably helped ease the anxiety, apprehension and insecurity a bit, but guess what? In the end, I still feel anxious, apprehensive and insecure about the state of our world today, as do most people. We live in a world of systems where individuals don’t matter; the only way to deal with it is to create tiny worlds where individuals do matter and relationships are the center of our universe. The risk is that by disengaging from the real world and all its cacophony, we may wind up making things worse.
Score another for Thom and a bonus point for presenting us with an unresolvable paradox!
The album opens with a chilling argument for staying engaged in the real world, no matter how fucked up and unchangeable it appears to be. “2 + 2 =5” uses the dramatic monologue form to demonstrate the negative consequences of mass exodus into escape pods: you wind up with stupid people who pride themselves in their ignorance, drench themselves in paranoia and believe ludicrous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate that wouldn’t make the cut for a B-grade film. In other words, you get Trump voters. The speaker considers any effort to make the world a better place a lost cause, and consistent with his denial of reality, grounds his belief in the superstitions of Christian mythology:
Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll sit home forever
Where two and two always makes a five
I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
The music supporting the opening passage creates the necessary tension through half-step chord oscillation and harmonic intervals that defy classic harmonic rules by drifting away from the chord. The eerie falsetto in the third verse, floating over lower, indistinct voices and a mandolin-like riff, underscores the sense of the unreal and its inherent fragility. Radiohead breaks the tension with a sudden shift to all-out bash as the character explodes with a defensive response to those who question his sanity—“You have not been paying attention!” As he never reveals exactly what we should be paying attention to, we can classify this and the lyrics that follow as the ramblings of a very frightened human being who lacks confidence in both generally-accepted reality and the alternative reality he has created (hence the subtitle, “The Lukewarm”):
Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it’s not
But it’s not
But it’s not
The most disturbing thing about this Orwellian message is that the source of the alternative fact 2 + 2 = 5 is not the state in the form of Big Brother, but most likely the bullshit you find on Fox News, Wikileaks or InfoWars.
“Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” is indeed a protest song but you’d have to consult Songfacts to understand why: Thom Yorke wrote the song in response to stories about the Rwandan genocide. When you know that, the song becomes quite moving, but there aren’t any crumbs in the song that form a trail to get you to Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere in the vicinity. The African-influenced beats and what sounds like an electronic version of a mbira do give the song an African flavor, particularly in the more intense “raindrops” passage where the bass feels like it’s going to burst your eardrums. Like “2 + 2 = 5,” the song is split into a quiet and loud sections, but unlike the Pixiesque use quiet-loud in their earlier works, the quiet sections are extended builds (extended to three minutes on “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) that set up the full power display. In both songs, the meaning is intensified by this building technique—in “2 + 2 = 5,” the shift to power dramatizes the character’s self-generated instability; here the power shift reflects the overwhelming, unbearable fear of those waiting in line to meet a horrible death.
Obviously we could use something a bit more soothing right about now, and despite valid arguments concerning the track order in Hail to the Thief, the boys nailed this transition. “Sail to the Moon” is a gorgeous piece of music, featuring a guitar-piano-ondes Martenot trio that is lush and lovely, winding itself beautifully around Thom Yorke’s high-register vocal. The song is in part a search for clarity (the subtitle is “Brush the Cobwebs from the Sky”), partly a father’s wish for his son and partly an updated take on the mythology of Noah’s Ark where instead of a god sending a deluge to destroy all the sodomizers and moneyfuckers, we have a human being longing for escape from the man-made catastrophe of modern existence. The present is never far from Thom Yorke’s mind, though, as expressed in the passage where he defies citizenship barriers and reflects on his recently-born son’s future:
But know right from wrong
I can’t believe we live in a world where we are forced to feel nostalgia for leaders with a moral compass.
“Backdrafts (Honeymoon is Over.)” is a fascinating piece where Yorke uses the imagery of being stuck in a snowstorm to reveal the psyche of a group of conspirators whose political hanky-panky is about to be exposed. The lyrics could have been borrowed from Wikileaks’ unpublished hack of the Republican National Committee:
We’re rotten fruit
We’re damaged goods
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble
We’re backdrifting . . .
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footsteps give you away
So you’re backtracking
Oh oh oh
I love the muffled electronic beats and throbs in this song and how the cottony sound contrasts with the largely unfiltered voice of Thom Yorke, forcing the listener to absorb the lyrics. The piano solo is also placed in the background, underscoring the sense of nefarious things going on behind the scenes. And—not that I have anyone particular in mind—how I wish that one gust could be enough to get rid of all the crooks who use public service for personal gain, but I think it’s going to take multiple gusts and some kind of revolution in human consciousness.
It’s time for that dominant female matriarchy, boys! We won’t let you get away with shit . . . and you’ll love it!
And if I were fortunate enough to earn the exalted position of Almighty Mistress of the Earth, I would immediately order a review of all music videos on YouTube and ban any and all that failed to contribute to greater understanding of the fucking song! That would eliminate 99% of the music videos in existence, restoring the basic truth that music is primarily an aural experience, and is not to be used as a soundtrack for incoherent stories filled with random shots of fake lips, fake tits, fake orgasms and BAD ACTING! I bring this up because one of the videos I intend to preserve is the video for “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased.),” the second single released from Hail to the Thief. I was immediately intrigued by this song the first time I heard it because of the 10/4 time signature in the passages driven by acoustic guitar, but the lyrics seemed impenetrable—a strange ramble with references to Gulliver and a classic lullaby. Once I saw the video, everything clicked into place. The scene opens with an overlay of a full red rose over the background of a city marked by classical architecture. A CGI rendition of Thom Yorke enters the scene, sits on a park bench and begins rambling and waving his arms while all the busy, busy people completely ignore his existence. Suddenly the buildings begin to collapse in what looks like a series of controlled demolitions (progress!); neither CGI Tom nor the busy, busy people pay any attention. Once the city is leveled, restoration begins with the construction of replacement buildings in characterless modern architecture. The video ends with the rose returning to foreground, its flower now closed tightly against the cold environment.
Having grown up in San Francisco, a city where busy, busy people on their way to work routinely step over the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the doorways as if they were piles of dogshit, where progress in the form of the digital age capitalism and the invasion of the nouveau riche have transformed the city into another characterless financial center, the video really hit home with me. The blind indifference we show to other human beings who have either had a bad break or suffer from treatable mental illness is something I find deeply appalling. When you combine that blind indifference to suffering with blindness to the destructive effects of progress—a condition facilitated by cultural norms that encourage greed—you create stratified communities where dehumanization is just part of the social fabric. “Go To Sleep” is a title dripping with sarcasm—the song is a wake-up call to face our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late.
The Greenwood brothers knock it out of the park in “Where I End and You Begin,” where Jonny demonstrates his skill with the ondes Martenot to create an irresistibly eerie soundscape while Colin’s sinuous bass line gives the piece its forward movement. The dominant image of the song is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek mythology, in the worlds of alchemy and gnosticism, in the practice of Kundalini and in the mythological analyses of Carl Jung. The image symbolizes the cyclical nature of growth and the re-creation of self; the act of becoming involves “swallowing” (accepting) the old self and integrating it with the new. Jung linked the symbol to the process of individuation, where the integration involves acceptance of the shadow—all those dark features of our personality we do not want to accept. Given the themes explored so far, I don’t think Jung was what Thom Yorke had in mind. My take is the “gap in between” in this song is the gap between self and other. In a society in denial about the consequences of its actions, relationships—both casual and intimate—are likely to be contaminated by denial and garden-variety bullshit. The repeated fade lines—“I will eat you alive (4)/There will be no more lies” is a cry for intimacy, for unconditional love without barriers. Music and lyrics reflect the mysterious, paradoxical nature of human relationships, making “Where I End and You Begin” one of the richest pieces on the album.
Up to this point, I would argue that Hail to the Thief is worthy of inclusion in the best Radiohead album debate—and we haven’t even covered my two favorite songs! Alas and alack, before we get there we have to deal with the album’s fundamental flaws. The original approach Radiohead adopted in recording Hail to the Thief was a good one for a band who needed to balance the use of digital manipulation that dominated their two previous releases with more human spontaneity: lay down the tracks as quickly as possible and do more “live” recording in the studio to create a sense of immediacy. What tripped them up more than anything else was song selection: Hail to the Thief contains a few really bad ideas that they should have saved for that time in the distant future when Radiohead no longer releases new material and fans suffering from Radiohead withdrawal will ingest anything to relieve the jonesing. Hail to the Thief consists of fourteen tracks, and both listeners and band members have complained about the length of the album. Well, the only reason that length is the problem is that some of the songs flat out suck! Really, would you have complained about the length of a Radiohead album if all fourteen tracks were outstanding?
I’ve seen some argue that the right length would have been ten tracks; I’m going to argue for eleven. The first of the three I would cut is the song I consider the worst thing Radiohead has ever done: “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time is up.).” I’d rather have a double root canal than listen to this fucking song again. Radiohead’s fascination with slow tempos is taken to absurd extremes here—the song slithers like a slug on a cold winter’s day, in large part due to handclaps that make the song seem even slower than it is. We’re talking frozen fucking molasses here, folks! The subject matter—Hollywood exploitation—seems completely out-of-place and trivializes the more significant universal messages on the album. “We Suck Young Blood” . . . well, it just sucks.
The second track I’d wipe from the tape is definitely a thematic fit but is as boring as a guy who only knows the in-and-out move. “The Gloaming” deserves inclusion only for its symbolism, which is a piss-poor excuse if there ever was one. The slow, tape-loop only track destroys the sense of immediacy Radiohead wanted to create, and its placement after the dreariness of “We Suck Young Blood” was unconscionable. Colin Greenwood would have cut this track as well, arguing that it was one of those songs that worked live but collapsed in the studio. Having created playlists where these two tracks are eliminated, I guarantee you will have a better listening experience without them.
And since you can’t get a better listening experience than “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere.),” eliminating the two draggy songs gets you there a helluva lot faster! The image of the sirens calling you to your death on the cold, hard rock cliffs of the treacherous passage tells us this song is about not falling prey to illusion (“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there). However, even the presence of mythological horror figures fails to dampen the underlying gestalt of the song: this is one of the sexiest pieces of music ever created. Those pounding jungle drums, that rough, ripping guitar, the deep groove of the bass, Ed O’Brien’s background vocals adding a touch of 21st century Fleetwoods, Thom Yorke’s flowing lead vocal peppered with underlying tension ready to explode—shit, I’m ready to explode every time I hear this song! Let me check—where’s my fucking iPhone? Got it. Clock app. Got it. Now all I have to do is hit the stopwatch and the play button at the same time. Shit, I can’t do this—Ali! Come here! Okay, now—on the count of three, hit the start button. One, two, three! Okay, stop. Got it!
It takes 2.3 seconds for my hips to grind and my sweet spot to start glistening once “There, There” begins. Please excuse me for a few minutes—my partner’s right here, half-naked, and I never miss an opportunity. Watch the nice video from Glastonbury and I’ll be back in about six orgasms.
Uh, I’m not done. Can you please watch the official video while I finish? It’s quite good, and the song has enormous replay value. See ya in a few!
Whew! That hit the fucking spot! I’m having a great time with this review! Let me have a cigarette and change into a mood that’s less comfortable in preparation for the next track. Back in ten.
Ten minutes would have meant a lot of wasted vinyl, but Radiohead would have been well-advised to insert thirty seconds of silence between “There, There” and “I Will,” as I can’t think of two songs more fundamentally different. The first makes you want to get down and dirty while the second brings you to tears. Thom Yorke describes “I Will (No man’s Land.)” as “the angriest song I’ve ever written,” and his feelings of shock and outrage are more than justified. “I Will” is in some ways a companion piece to “Idioteque” on Kid A, answering the opening question of that song: “Who’s in the bunker?” The answer is families with children trying to protect themselves from American bombs, not realizing that the Americans can deploy “bunker busters” at the drop of a dollar. Having seen footage of such an attack from the First Gulf War (the one people refer to as “the good fight”), Yorke’s outrage focuses on the images of “little babies’ eyes” in an attempt to inspire a similar sense of outrage among listeners. The horrifying aspect of the song isn’t so much the imagery as it is the standard response to such barbarity: label it “collateral damage” and move on. “Were any Americans killed? No? Then who cares?”
There are things I miss about the U. S. A., but there are many more things that make me proud to say that I am not an American citizen.
“I Will” fades seamlessly into “A Punch Up at a Wedding,” where Yorke uses the ultimate social faux pas as a way to describe a world where all sense of civility and honor have collapsed into a pointless series of brawls. Sounds like a typical day at the office for the U. S. Congress! Hey! Maybe if they opened their sessions with Radiohead instead of a prayer . . . nah.
Musically, the song is pretty straightforward with a slight funk tinge, executed with precision and professionalism. The connection to the Bush-Cheney regime and their fawning supporters on Fox News can be found in the final passage—if you have access to Fox News, tune in, turn down the sound, watch the talking heads and listen to this verse—you’ll get it.
Don’t infect me with your poison
A bully in a china shop
When I turn ’round you stay frozen to the spot
The pointless snide remarks
Of hammer-headed sharks
The pot will call the kettle black
It’s a drunken punch-up at a wedding, yeah
My second favorite song on Hail to the Thief is “Myxomatosis,” and it’s not just because I’m a bass whore. Thom Yorke has demonstrated a long-standing affinity for strange characters dating back to “Creep,” and the character in this song is one seriously confused individual. Among his many ramblings is the claim that he suffers from myxomatosis, a disease that only affects rabbits. The claim is fanciful and while he may indeed believe that it’s true, the rabbit metaphor effectively describes his mental state:
I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive
As to how he arrived at such a state, he seems to have engaged in some grandstanding designed to garner fame and fortune—an effort that failed miserably:
I sat in the cupboard
And wrote it down in neat
They were cheering and waving
Cheering and waving
Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis
But it got edited, fucked up
Strangled, beaten up
Used as a photo in Time magazine
Buried in a burning black hole in Devon
He admits in the first line of the last verse that “My thoughts are misguided and a little naïve” (no shit), but goes on to confirm his unsuccessful attempt to make a name for himself:
Yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars
That wasn’t my intention, I did it for a reason
It must have got mixed up
Strangled beaten up
Although there isn’t enough information to make a definitive interpretation, I read “Myxomatosis” as a powerful exposé of the modern obsession with gaining Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the idiots who voluntarily humiliate themselves publicly on Jerry Springer’s show or various “reality shows” where the narrative is twisted by selective camera work to induce the maximum amount of embarrassment. This guy is such a loser he couldn’t even make Jerry Springer! That is a L-O-S-E-R par excellence!
The quirky story seeks extremely well with the fuzz bass-dominated arrangement, and Thom Yorke’s vocal is picture-perfect, especially in the stop-time segments where he goes monosyllabic. I may not know exactly what “Myxomatosis” is all about, but I love the feel of the song and the strange quirkiness of the incompetent hero.
Hail to the Thief should have ended with “Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves),” a perfectly lovely melody that describes the scattered state of nearly everyone living in the world today as we struggle to find ourselves amidst an information deluge coming at us at hyper speed. Unfortunately, the album ends with the odd waltz, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” which fits the album’s main themes from a lyrical standpoint, but feels musically disconnected from the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s the waltz tempo combined with rap, or the feeling that the more melodic chorus is incompatible with the monologue, or the violent scenes described in the lyrics. There’s also something about this song that makes me suspect that it belongs in a musical—and I hate fucking musicals.
Hail to the Thief may not be perfect, but I still think it’s a pretty damned good album, and even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release in 2003. If Thom Yorke thought the Bush-Cheney tag team was a WHAT THE FUCK moment to end all WHAT THE FUCK moments, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now after another stolen election gave the American presidency to a perfectly horrid little man with one-twentieth the intelligence of GW.
But please, spare me the follow-up album. When Trump goes down, I never want to hear, read or watch anything having to do with that sad excuse for a human being.
Hey! Maybe he’s got myxomatosis! That would explain a lot!