Let me say up front that while I appreciate Radiohead’s ongoing support for once-struggling-now-Grammy-winning artist Stanley Donwood aka Dan Rickwood, I do not like any of the artwork on Radiohead albums. None. Zero. Zip. I will agree to use the neutral word “distinctive” to describe the Radiohead approach to album art, but if you visit me in Nice, don’t expect to see any Radiohead covers plastered on my walls.
When I first saw the album cover for The King of Limbs, I’m sure that my face must have looked like I was sucking on a lemon . . . just like Thom Yorke’s face as he grumbled his way through the OK Computer tour. I was almost afraid to open the sleeve, wondering if some kind of creepy-crawly thing was going to slither its way up my blouse. When I finally managed to overcome my phobia, I placed the record on the turntable, listened to it intently without distraction, and at the end I had absolutely no reaction at all. None. Zero. Zip.
I shrugged my shoulders, placed the record back in the sleeve, may have said something like “You can’t win them all,” and moved on with my life.
I didn’t pull it out of the collection until last summer when I decided to start reviewing all of Radiohead’s studio albums. I thought I’d begin the process by going through the albums in chronological order, from Pablo Honey to the recently-released A Moon Shaped Pool so I could take a fresh look at their progression over the years. I will admit that once I finished listening to In Rainbows, I had little desire to take the next step in the journey, so I decided to put off The King of Limbs for a little while.
That little while turned into a long while. Summer was long gone, autumn had disappeared and we were well into what passes for winter in Nice—February, to be precise. While our winters are still full of sunshine, on that particular day an icy fog had crept into the city, soon to be followed by a burst of heavy rain—the kind of gloomy, miserable day when you just want to snuggle up on the couch with a warm blanket and let the outside world go to hell. Instead of reading, I spent my afternoon listening to The King of Limbs.
“Wow!” I thought when the music had ended. “This is way better than I thought!”
I think two things skewed my initial perception of The King of Limbs (three things, if you count the cover). Mood is always a factor, and I vaguely remember my mood before the first go-round as “trembling with excitement.” What I heard on that first pass of The King of Limbs was “slow and subdued,” offering very little that could accommodate my excitement and sense of anticipation. And though I forever warn against it, the common bias of comparing this album to the last was probably in play. In Rainbows had greater sonic range and plenty of punch, whereas The King of Limbs operates more on the subtle side of the ledger.
Several critics had the same initial reaction of disappointment; some got over it, some still haven’t. I noticed a snippet by Ann Powers (then writing for the Los Angeles Times) that may account for my late embrace of The King of Limbs. ” . . . fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: some think it’s one of the band’s best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy, and a few others wish it were less abstract.”
Awfully doomy. My reunion with The King of Limbs took place in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. If there was ever a time to feel “doomy,” that was it. The theory that The King of Limbs is at least partially a pre-apocalyptic expression of despair is supported by Neil McCormick’s comments on “Give Up the Ghost” in The Daily Telegraph, where he described it as “A campfire song for the end of the world.” Thom Yorke has long despaired (and rightly so) the continuing destruction of the natural environment by our relentlessly wasteful species, another reason to lend credence to doom theory. Whether it was the relatively subdued music (perfect for a rainy day) or the evocation of feelings that were in sync with mine, my mind was now open to exploring this unusual and fascinating piece of work.
Another complaint lodged against The King of Limbs has to do with Radiohead’s approach to the recording process. Essentially, most of The King of Limbs is built from drum samples, instrumental loops, nature sounds and a whole lot of software manipulation. The boys used the smaller pieces to put together blocks of music, then handed them over to Thom Yorke to write the lyrics and vocal melodies. Musical Legos! The greatest challenge that arose from the building block process was that it took months for the band to figure out how to perform the songs live, delaying the supporting tour. The very idea that good music can be achieved through software code offends many purists, but to imply (as Stephen Erlewine did in his review for AllMusic) that all this newfangled software automatically results in something “cold” and distant is old-fart thinking. Digital technology is as much a creative tool as a piano; recording software is in fact a human product; and whether or not music comes out “cold” has more to do with the skill of the musicians than the tools they used to create and perform the music. The King of Limbs is hardly lacking when it comes to emotional impact, and some of the songs are strikingly beautiful.
Many Radiohead fans have noted that the songs get better as the album progresses, and while I don’t agree with the first-half-weak/second-half-great summation, it is true that most of the impact comes later. The opening songs establish the basic musical premise, as voiced by Ed O’Brien: “Rhythm is the king of limbs.” If you read that and associate “rhythm” and “dance rhythm,” you’ll be sorely disappointed (unless you associate “dance” with Thom Yorke’s heavily-memed, choreographed performance on the “Lotus Flower” video). The first three tracks use rhythm in unique and varied ways—contrasting rhythms to highlight tension, slipping rhythms to communicate a sense of uncertainty, shifting rhythms to draw out disconnection.
“Bloom” opens with a lovely piano loop quickly truncated and overwhelmed by drum and bass loops featuring quick, crowded beats that communicate a state of “busy-ness,” or “hyperactive brain buzz.” Thom Yorke’s vocal, however is heavy on elongated notes, seemingly moving forward at half-speed in comparison to the still-busy beats. The contrast is a perfect aural representation of that feeling you get when you’re dog-tired but drank too much caffeine, and while your body’s ready to crash, your brain is going a hundred miles a minute. Thom Yorke’s comments about the origins of the song describe a similar experience while watching the BBC’s The Blue Planet: “It was me lying on the sofa trying to go to sleep after being up too late with my young son and it was just coming in and out of my subconscious,” and the lyrics capture those semi-conscious images (“A giant turtle’s eyes/As jellyfish float by”). The first verse melts into an extended instrumental passage where the words melt into breaths and vocalizations, fading beautifully into a well-layered cascade of flugelhorns (arranged by Jonny Greenwood), all while the busy rhythm runs unabated. The horns provide additional contrast when the vocal resumes, but we are always drawn to the ever-present rhythm. While “Bloom” isn’t exactly your classic opener, it’s a well-constructed piece of colliding rhythms and textures mirroring real life experience.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” had been lying around in the Radiohead pile for some time. It started out as a raw acoustic number, then apparently went through several transformations, none of which worked. The acoustic version (you can find it on YouTube) has the virtue of chord diversity and clarity, but clearly lacks something, most apparently in the awkward rhythmic shifts. While The King of Limbs version certainly resolves the rhythmic problem—using the nervous rhythm to amplify the narrator’s frustration with his inability to write music—I find this application of a “busy” beat more annoying than insightful. I’m also not sure why Thom Yorke would fall back on the silly myth of the magpie’s penchant for thievery as an explanation for writer’s block. Even more curious is Thom Yorke expressing frustration at losing his gift for melody; after all, he told Q Magazine in a piece on Kid A that “I’d completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.” Oddly enough, the song that bemoans the loss of the melodic touch became a rhythmic playground in its “final” manifestation—and my least favorite song on the album.
My ears do perk up to the opening passages of “Little by Little,” with its reverse acoustic strum and layered guitars climbing the scale with falling note patterns over a salsa-influenced rhythm. My ears shut down as soon as I hear Thom Yorke’s vocal, one seriously lacking in intent, commitment or both. While still not perfect—fundamentally, I don’t think the song is one of their best—the live and televised versions of “Little by Little” feature an edginess that is completely missing from The King of Limbs version.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is a favorable review. I made a full consumer-oriented disclosure at the start—it does get better! A lot better!
The good times begin with the instrumental “Feral,” a piece that gets so little attention or respect that there is a Reddit thread called, “Where’s the Love for Feral??” From my perspective, if Radiohead had come out with a 5-song EP that opened with “Feral” and included the last four tracks on The King of Limbs, I would have pronounced it the greatest fucking EP ever released.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say “Feral” has an opening passage, for it feels like we’ve walked into a performance in progress. Without any introductory fanfare, the energetic beats and the simple G-minor pattern (first variation low, second through fourth variations an octave higher) establish the center of the vortex around which the other blocks of sound will revolve. Thom Yorke enters slightly off-center, singing a descending scale-friendly pattern of blurred lyrics, then reappears further off-center on a higher plane, his voice drenched in the kind of natural reverb you might hear in a cathedral. The effect is positively ecclesiastic, giving the piece a ghostly, supernatural tinge. At the end of the next vocal pair, the synthesized bass enters, giving us a brief foretaste of what is to come. The vocal loops then become more scattered, creating a sense of disturbance reinforced by varying levels of loudness. When the beats fade further into the background and the vocal sounds like someone running out of breath, the ominous, sustained sound of a synthesizer slowly fills the background while the bass re-enters the mix, further crowding the soundscape. The pressure becomes quite intense, and the feeling I get is “pleasant claustrophobia,” similar to the weird delight we feel when viewing the scene in the horror flick when the evil monster is closing in on the innocent young lass. When the band backs off and cuts the bass, it’s almost like “whew, that was a close one!” When the basic pattern returns, it feels almost like relief—almost because of the natural melancholy inherent in a minor chord. But like in any decent scary movie, a more frightening manifestation appears when the pressure from the bass returns and Thom goes full ecclesiastic. In the fade, everything disappears except for the sound of a computerized metronome and that something-wicked-this-way-comes bass run. Given the song’s title, it wouldn’t be illogical to connect that wickedness to a wild animal, but personally I find the ecclesiastical vocals much more disturbing. I can deal with wild animals or werewolves, but cathedrals, chapels and churches freak me the fuck out (Sainte-Chapelle excepted). Whatever your personal sensitivities, “Feral” is a thrilling listening experience—and if you love bass as much as I do, check out the even more ferocious manifestation on the From the Basement version.
“Lotus Flower” is better known as a video than a song thanks to a series of satiric video memes. Sadly, none of them made the Top 30 Most Popular YouTube Memes of All Time on Wondershare, losing out to a baby laughing at the sound of ripping paper, a dramatic chipmunk and a couple of World of Warcraft gamers.
Moving on from the Who Gives a Shit? List of Useless Lists, all I’ll say about the video is that Thom Yorke has fantastic control of his body parts.
Here we’re more concerned with the music, and “Lotus Flower” is a sinuous, sexy beauty of a song, and anyone who thinks loop-based musical construction results in cold and abstract music is a fucking idiot. The drum and bass loops form to create a groove I could dance to forever, while the subtle off-beat handclaps shake up the pattern and awaken the listener (or dancer) to rhythmic pockets beyond the obvious. Thom Yorke attacks the song largely at the upper end of the range with perfect dynamic command of his falsetto, occasionally supported by emphasizing loops (on the keyword “heart,” for example). Musically speaking, “Lotus Flower” is as close to perfection as it gets.
The lyrics appear to tell a story of an illicit affair (“We would shrink and then be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want/Do what we want”); what keeps the affair going is the sheer beauty of the sexual connection; what endangers it is a combination of guilt (his) and narcissism (hers). He is willing to shape himself into her pocket, and even shrink and disappear as a human being, but there is a limit to his submissiveness:
There’s an empty space inside my heart
Where the weeds take root
So now I set you free
I’ll set you free
That may be true, but he can’t deny the beauty they create together, and the what “could be”:
Slowly we unfold
As lotus flowers
Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what if
Sadly, reality intrudes in its usual annoying fashion . . . and in the end he’s the Tin Man singing, “If She Only Had a Heart.”
Just to see what is
I can’t kick your habit
Just to feed your fast-ballooning head
Listen to your heart
In the last verse, he still feels the pull of the lotus flower, but the dangers outweigh its attraction (“I dance around the pit/The darkness is beneath). While sometimes Thom’s lyrics seem like deliberate attempts to befuddle, the lyrics to “Lotus Flower” are spot-on.
Since everyone in the universe has seen the official music video, I will give readers a choice. You can take another look at Thom’s dancing, or you can watch a time-lapse video of a lotus flower unfolding (a wondrous experience).
“Lotus Flower” would be a hard song to follow in almost any circumstance . . . unless you happen to have “Codex” handy, a work of humble majesty and awesome beauty.
The word “codex” refers to ancient manuscripts, often with the implication of ancient wisdom. The sacred act of “washing the filth away” exists in texts as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Marcus Aurelius encouraged his audience to “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Closer to our times, Picasso claimed that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone that “Codex” was “about washing yourself clean in a world of dirty water.” The filth that Enkidu washed away was the dirt and dust from a long journey, symbolism grounded in the natural world. Over time the filth we need to remove has become more spiritual and symbolic, whether it’s the Christian preacher ranting about filth of sin that blackens the soul or the modern experience of the grunge that contaminates our beings through the simple act of living in an often dishonest, manipulative world. “Codex” is a quiet celebration of the longed-for moment when we once again feel in touch with our innocent selves.
Opening with an onrushing sound that ends in a truncated human cry, we shift immediately to the dominant piano chord pattern that resolves in D minor. I love this pattern—and it’s not the chords that grab my attention but the touch. The chords feel like they’re floating above the arrangement, with just the right amount of sustain and percussive pressure. And no, I don’t give a rat’s ass whether or not this effect was achieved through human fingers or through software—the sound is simply beautiful, whatever the source. Sometimes when I start to practice, I’ll begin with the “Codex” pattern to work on my touch and pedal skills (which always need work because I have a tendency to overplay when I get excited).
Over that floating pattern, Thom Yorke enters with a vocal that captures the tiredness of the soul gazing longingly at the clean, clear water. His deliberately understated vocal pairs perfectly with the restrained piano and the slow, metronomic beat. A brief flugelhorn passage follows the second verse, combining a touch of melancholy with a splash of clarity. The narrator who has guided our lost soul to the water’s edge offers final words of encouragement, repeating the inviting line, “The water’s clear and innocent.” At this point, the song proper disappears, replaced by a string section courtesy of The London Telefilmonic Orchestra. I’ve always heard this transition as one between the air and the water, the shift from exhaustion to cleansing, and as we reconnect with the dominant pattern, we emerge from the pool to the lovely sounds of singing birds that we probably ignored before the soul cleansing.
The video does a wonderful job of uncovering the filth inherent in the daily experience and the lies we tell ourselves and others in our soul-crushing efforts to survive in a heavily contaminated world.
“Codex” transitions directly into “Give Up the Ghost,” a song notable for its subtle but persistent acoustic strum and its perpetual haunting refrain of “Don’t hurt me.” One interpretive path is to view “Give Up the Ghost” as a continuation of “Codex,” for a person who rediscovers lost innocence becomes extraordinarily vulnerable when re-engaging the living world. Another is to view the message as the result of the enlightenment experience of “Codex” and the emerging awareness that we are one, regardless of station, and that together we can achieve the impossible.
Gather up the lost and sold
In your arms
Gather up the pitiful
In your arms
What seems impossible
In your arms
However, neither interpretation solves the puzzle of the last two verses, which seem to express despair (“I think I have had my fill/In your arms” and “I think I should give up the ghost/In your arms”). The clues in the music are encouraging—a chord structure heavy on sustained chords without a hint of minor or diminished chords supports the more positive interpretation—but all expressions of hope for a better world are by necessity tinged with melancholy because of the unacceptable present that sparks the dream. We wouldn’t hope if the world wasn’t such a mess.
Thom Yorke is again at the top of the game with his lead and background vocals, which come together in completely mesmerizing fashion. The supportive touches of synth and guitar never distract from the core patterns, and as in “Codex,” the beat support is stripped to essentials. Another beauty!
We end with “Separator,” a song that beautifully synthesizes many of the musical and lyrical themes on The King of Limbs. The lyrics revisit the resurrection/cleansing theme of “Codex,” the bonding urge of “Give Up the Ghost” and the challenges of relationships noted in “Lotus Flower.” Here, Thom leaves the world of the waking dead by making an affirmative, assertive choice—the blessed act of liberation par excellence:
It’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream
Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying
And as that woman blows her cover
In the eye of the beholder
I’m a fish now, out of water
Falling off a giant bird that’s been carrying me
I fell open, I lay under
At the tea parlour
I lost your number
And once it’s over
Hid back under
If you think this is over, then you’re wrong (4)
The glorious ending cry of “Wake me up” is such a delight to hear in a world where it seems there are more and more people yearning to sleep forever with their heads firmly stuck up their asses.
The music is remarkable for the wonderful build, a slow progression where additions accumulate piece by piece over the always steady beat. The orgasmic moment is heralded by four measures of relative stillness leading to the tea parlor verse, when Thom’s vocal receives counterpoint support from sweetly melodic stereo guitars. Those guitars give me the chills every time I hear them, and when you know something is coming but it still gives you the chills, that’s great fucking music, my friends! From this point forward the challenge for the listener is to select a focal point in a smorgasbord of delightful sounds—the guitar patterns, Thom’s lead vocal, Thom’s background vocals, the suddenly assertive bass—the collective sound is so captivating it’s almost overwhelming. “Separator” provides both a satisfying sense of completion and ringing confirmation that “Videotape” wasn’t just luck, but definitive proof that Radiohead had finally mastered the art of the album closer.
I’ve pointed out in other reviews that sometimes Radiohead’s seeming obsession with slow songs drives me to distraction, but after indulging myself in the wonderful slow-tempo songs that dominate The King of Limbs, I have—what is that bullshit line politicians use? Oh, yes—my position has EVOLVED. Now I see that the earlier attempts at slow-song perfection demonstrated just how difficult it is to achieve, and given the overwhelmingly successful results on The King of Limbs, we should be very thankful that Radiohead continued on their quest. The King of Limbs may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re in the mood for rich, reflective and evocative music featuring marvelous rhythms at relaxed tempos, I guarantee you a beautiful experience.
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.