Radiohead: Together in the Alone
By John Murphy
Through their music, Radiohead communes with everyone who's ever been tempted to despair in a world where God seems absent
Posted 2/5/08 at 2:45 PM
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow”
In 2001, I saw Radiohead perform at the scenic Gorge Amphitheater in Washington. A sold-out crowd of 20,000 had made a pilgrimage to this isolated spot in the desert to watch five men play music against a majestic expanse of sky and a rolling landscape gouged out by the sinuous line of the Columbia River.
For much of the audience, this concert was a secular form of worship: tens of thousands gathering en masse to experience a touch of the transcendent. The stage was the sanctuary, the music the liturgy, the audience the faithful, and the band members were the secular gods.
About forty minutes into the set, as the sun dipped behind the horizon and scarlet suffused the sky, Radiohead began to play one of their signature songs from their 1997 album, OK Computer, “Karma Police.” A shiver ran down my spine as the biting verse broke into a sweeping chorus, “For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself…” Beneath a sky deepening from purple to star-speckled back, the music soared, and 20,000 fans chanted the lyrics in unison like one swaying, swelling organism. The effect was transporting—some would say spiritual. For a minute there, I lost myself.
Of course I don’t consider concert-going an adequate substitute for churchgoing, but Radiohead’s performance had elements of the sublime, the connectivity, the ritual, and the transcendent that should mark the Sunday liturgy.
That said, I doubt Radiohead fans seek spiritual solace from Radiohead’s music—it would make about as much as sense as finding comfort in The Brothers Karamozov—but there is an element of yearning in the dark beauty of the songs, a sense of one lonely soul trying, perhaps failing, to communicate with another that has a spiritual dimension. It’s the spirituality of the Agony in the Garden—closeness to God when the world turns its back, when despair threatens to swallow hope, or when meaning becomes buried beneath crass materialism. Like Christ on Holy Saturday, Radiohead have harrowed Hell, traveling to the dark places of the human heart to commune with those in the grip of despair, loneliness, and dread. The image on the cover of their 2000 album, Amnesiac, is a demon in tears.
Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows, was released this month, although it’s been available for download via the band’s official website since October. In a marketing strategy that caught the attention of the media and the music industry, Radiohead offered the album on a “pay what you want” basis. Diehard fans and curious newcomers could hear the songs for their price-of-choice, including $0.00. In a file-sharing era with music available at the click of a mouse, Radiohead’s decision was either a gesture of magnanimity or a direct challenge to the consumer: What is music worth?
Only an established, successful band could have pulled off such a stunt, particularly one that directly affronts the major label distribution system. Radiohead was in a position to take that risk. After six award-winning, chart-topping studio albums (they’ve sold over 23 million to date), Radiohead is arguably the most respected band in the world, having achieved commercial and critical success for music that is challenging, innovative, and often profoundly depressing. Their influence is wide-ranging and pervasive: Coldplay, Muse, Travis, the Doves, the Vines, Clinic, and Sigur Rós are just a handful of bands that owe a stylistic debt to Radiohead’s artful anthemic rock, just as the band’s constant reinvention of its sound has become something of a template for up-and-coming artists.
Fifteen years ago they were an unpromising group from Oxfordshire, England, called “On a Friday”. After hardscrabble years of touring in small clubs, opening gigs for obscure acts, a name change, and an EP, Radiohead released their first album Pablo Honey (1993) to tepid reviews and piddling sales.
From there, the band might have gone the way of countless other talented acts that fizzle out when the dangling carrot of success and stardom remains out of reach. Then something strange happened: A single off Pablo Honey called “Creep” (which had little success in England—BBC radio insisted it was “too depressing” to play) began to slowly build an international radio presence. It eventually became a massive hit in the United States, thanks to heavy airplay on college stations. This turn of events catapulted Radiohead’s career.
“Creep” clearly resonated with Generation X-istential, the same generation that took doom-and-gloom Nirvana to the top of the charts, and ate up Beck’s slacker anthem, “Loser” (with its catchy chorus, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me”). “Creep,” featuring blown-out distortion and wailing vocals, tapped into the fears endemic among angsty youngsters; fears of not belonging, of feeling trapped in a body in a specific time and place:
I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here
Fitting nicely into the grunge-rock format, “Creep” is about as subtle as a jackhammer. What the tune lacks in nuance, however, it makes up for with its barbaric yawp. The lyrics had a cathartic power for a generation of music listeners who were thinking the same thing, asking the same question, and whose sense of despairing confusion reached a symbolic apotheosis in the suicide of grunge-rock icon Kurt Cobain. Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead singer and lyricist, had tapped a twentieth-century archetype in his “Creep”—a lonely outsider trapped in temporality, questioning existence, and yearning for a connection that remains unrequited. Hence, the Creep’s timeless question, “What the hell am I doing here?” marks him as a spiritual cousin of Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger and Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea, both protagonists who confront the apparent meaninglessness of life in a Godless world.
Radiohead doesn’t have to have answers—it’s enough that they ask the question (“what the hell am I doing here?”) and take it seriously. Lead singer Thom Yorke isn’t wallowing in misery so much as reaching out to a wounded soul unmoored from any concrete source of meaning, a show of solidarity that imparts grace, beauty, and meaning to every human life. The Creep is a byproduct of the crisis of identity in modern culture—who am I, and what’s it all about? Without a life redeemed by Christ, this question remains unanswered, unanswerable, and despair is a temptation for those sensitive to the spiritual impoverishment of modern, secular society. As John Paul II has written, “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.”
There is nothing overtly Christian in the Radiohead catalogue, but the music is shot through with religious symbolism, and the recurring themes of alienation, loneliness, and disaffection with the world correspond to the Christian’s call to love the wounded and the vulnerable. Comparing music to religion, Thom Yorke said in an interview, “A good piece of music—like Arvo Pärt—is like knocking a hole in the wall so that you can see out on another place you didn’t know existed. If your consciousness is not constantly evolving somehow or other and you just keeping going round the same room again and again, then you’re sort of trapped—and every good piece of music—or art or writing—stops you feeling trapped.”
Radiohead’s music reveals a vista that can seem bleak, bereft of hope. It might be called “uneasy listening,” the sort of music that deliberately disorients the listener, rearranges the brain chemistry. For music fans content with predictable chord patterns and guitar/vocals/percussion arrangements, Radiohead’s idiosyncratic style can seem frustratingly abstract, to say nothing of the band’s “depressing” lyrical content. Yet part of the reason Radiohead has built such a fiercely loyal fan base is because the effort pays off; their rich, layered albums have an almost philosophical reach. The great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “The Christian must open his heart and allow himself to be most intimately affected, challenged, hurt. God in Christ went to the place of the loneliest sinner in order to communicate with him in dereliction by God.” In imitation of Christ, we must be willing to harrow the personal hell of the loneliest sinners to establish life-giving bonds of love and communion.
After the success of “Creep,” a strange thing happened. Radiohead refused to churn out “Creep” clones to ensure the band’s continuing success. Their second record, The Bends, didn’t feature a hit equal to “Creep,” but it did surprise critics who’d written them off as a one-hit wonder. Although it was a guitar-driven album with traditional verse/chorus/verse song structures, The Bends showcased the band’s musical ambition and deepening thematic concerns.
The title is a nickname for decompression sickness, a condition caused by a sudden drop in surrounding pressure. It was an appropriate choice for a record that explores the often hostile relationship between humanity and its environment. The major theme to emerge on The Bends, a theme that Radiohead revisits throughout their career, is the threat of vanishing, disappearing, or fading out from a time-trapped life where meaningful communication has become impossible. A two-line summary of the Radiohead corpus appears in the song “Bodysnatchers” from In Rainbows:
I have no idea what you’re talking about
I’m trapped in this body and can’t get out
They sounded a similar theme as early as “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” from The Bends. Over minor-key guitar arpeggios, Yorke’s plaintive voice sings:
This machine will, will not communicate
These thoughts and the strain I am under
Be a world child, form a circle
Before we all go under
And fade out again and fade out again
The song’s moving coda is one of the rare instances of Radiohead offering prescriptive advice to the listener:
Immerse your soul in love
Immerse your soul in love
“Love” is a word worn down to a nub of its original meaning in modern music, overused and cheapened, arbitrarily stuck in songs to help sell records. In the context of Radiohead’s emotional austerity, however, the lines have a heartbreaking simplicity. It is the first and only example that I can recall of the band clearly outlining a program for combating the Sturm und Drang of contemporary life: “Be a world child, form a circle…Immerse your soul in love.”
With OK Computer (1997), Radiohead realized their full potential as a five-piece. The album’s epic sweep, thematic seriousness and sonic experimentation established their reputation as the top alternative pop/rock band. Absorbing influences as diverse as DJ Shadow and Italian film composer, Ennio Morricone, Radiohead crafted a stunning, musically transporting survey of modern life at the approach of a new millennium. It has since entered the canon of Great Albums. Not just Great, in fact, but Important; OK Computer captured in a twelve song suite the dread and anxiety that hangs over modern life like an acid-rain saturated cloud. The record won a Grammy, Rolling Stone dubbed Radiohead ‘Best Band of the Year,’ and Spin recently named OK Computer the best album of the last twenty years.
OK Computer is a kind of loose concept album, the songs organized around the unifying themes of dehumanization, isolation, mistrust, and miscommunication set in a landscape littered with the detritus of latter-day technology. Radiohead envision the technological onslaught of the twenty-first century as a force for efficient destruction rather than for positive change.
The second track, “Paranoid Android,” is the album in microcosm, a six-minute prog-rock mini-epic with passages of breathtaking lyricism crashing against jagged rocks of squealing guitars and serrated riffs. Its opening line is “Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest.” The gorgeous interlude features Yorke’s voice multiplied, harmonizing like a choir of angels in torment:
Come on rain down
From a great height
From a great height
The hypnotic lyrical repetition echoes Travis Bickle’s prayer in Taxi Driver, “Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk,” in both instances rain acting like a purgative force on the sin-ridden streets of the twentieth-century city. Yorke, who worked for a time as an orderly in a mental hospital, seems particularly sensitive to the soul-deadening effects of urban industrialization, having admitted that “I’m quite an absorbent person – I have quite a low shield, or force-field or whatever, so I can get very affected by things around me.”
What Yorke sees dismays him—a future where humanity is the Ghost in the Machine—a human voice crying from a tangle of cables, wires, microchips, monitors, spinning wheels, chugging pistons, pollutive engines—an isolated body lost in a maze of “motorways and tramlines,”
Starting and then stopping, Taking off and landing, The emptiest of feelings,
Disappointed people, clinging on to bottles, And when it comes it’s so, so, disappointing.
The lines are from “Let Down,” for my money the single best song of the 1990’s.
In “Fitter Happier,” the dry drone of a computerized voice answers “Creep”’s anguished refrain, “I want a perfect body/I want a perfect soul” with a litany of increasingly bizarre, pseudo self-help catchphrases:
Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries , at ease, eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats), a patient better driver, a safer car (baby smiling in back seat), sleeping well (no bad dreams), no paranoia… no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate, nothing so childish - at a better pace, slower and more calculated, no chance of escape
Yorke records the necessary buffers between modern life and spiritual emptiness: the programs for self-improvement to make us “fitter, happier, more productive.” In other words, a surreal “how-to” become more like the computer that voices the unnerving lyrics. Becoming an automaton, the song seems to suggest, is how best to keep the darkness at bay.
The irony shouldn’t be lost on Christians, who may be tempted to think of faith as a form of self-improvement like dieting or exercising. Faith is comforting, of course, but shouldn’t become comfortable: it should be an impetus to change, following Christ’s exhortation to spread His light to the dark places of the earth—which includes the dark places of the human soul.
Critics were quick to label OK Computer “dystopian,” but the modern world—mired in wars, unmoored from spiritual meaning, and actively promoting the “culture of death”—requires a soundtrack that doesn’t rely on false sentiment, or offer trite, easy answers. Most of the music on the radio—whether country, pop, rock, rap, or mainstream Christian —is shallow, unimaginative and crass, with cookie-cutter chord progressions, milquetoast melodies, programmed production, and recycled lyrics. What Thom Yorke has called “air freshener” music: “just a nasty little poison in the air.”
Radiohead’s music may depress, but it’s not depressing—bad music is depressing. Whether it’s the Black-Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Alan Jackson, or Linkin Park, the majority of major-label music is surface-obsessed, factory-made, mass-produced, shamelessly promoted, and instantly disposable.
Radiohead’s sense of music’s sacrality distinguishes them from the drivel crowding record shelves. The near-neurotic perfectionism with which they approach their material has a kind of religious intensity, like the four backbreaking years Michelangelo spent painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The New Yorker put it best: “Next to the white noise of prefab pop, Radiohead’s songs sound like the music of a hidden world, hymns from a sunken cathedral.” Their attention to craft and artistry in an age that prizes singers who can’t sing and musicians who can’t play their instruments is in-and-of-itself a protest against despair, a sign of hope.
In the garish neon landscape of bubblegum pop music, the fact that Kid A (2000), Radiohead’s glacially distant and decidedly downbeat follow-up to OK Computer, landed at #1 on the music charts is borderline miraculous. It is arguably the strangest album ever to top the Billboard; an anomaly doubly anomalous because Radiohead didn’t tour behind the album, issue press releases, shoot music videos, or give any interviews. The album came, conquered and left a lot of folks bewildered.
Anyone hoping for OK Computer II was in for a disappointment. Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead’s second 2000 release, were recorded in the same contentious session which saw the band experimenting with new sounds: eschewing standard time signatures, incorporating jazz freak-outs, dabbling in lyric-less moodscapes, and generally trying to dismantle their reputation for “cerebral anthem rock” established with The Bends and OK Computer.
With its emphasis on texture over traditional arrangements, Kid A remapped the boundary lines of what a #1 hit album could sound like. Yet even as they traveled far afield from where they had begun, the atmosphere of loneliness and alienation that had characterized their earlier albums threatened to swallow the endeavor whole. If Radiohead’s six-album career is one long dark night of the soul, Kid A is the darkest hour.
“What was that you tried to say? What was that you tried to say?” These lines close-out the first track on Kid A, the ironically-titled, “Everything in Its Right Place.” Nothing is in its right place sonically—guitars and drums are replaced by electronic blips, synth waves, and alien back-up singers, while Yorke’s pained falsetto sings surreal lyrics, “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” and “There are two colors in my head.” The sounds are different, but the song remains the same: “Communication Breakdown,” the famous Led Zeppelin epic, could serve as Radiohead’s epitaph.
The title track on Kid A drains music of any recognizably human element—Yorke’s voice, warped and stretched as if the sound waves were refracting off a funhouse mirror, expresses the futility of communication in a technocratic world that isolates and dehumanizes, recalling the line “this machine will not communicate” from The Bends’ “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” A child’s cry ends the song on an eerie note, a reminder that the name of the album refers to the first cloned human, “Kid A.” What lyrics are discernible on the album tend to be fragmentary, elliptical and paranoia-infused, as in “National Anthem”:
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
A clone is the ultimate product of a society that devalues human dignity. Love can only exist in a communion of persons—God, who is Love, is a communion of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The tragedy of the modern condition is the alienating effect of technology and narcissism. Cocooned in our rooms, surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and screens and monitors, it is increasingly easy to block out reality, to escape into an alternative universe, even as the tangible world falls apart.
This is Yorke’s fear, if not exactly his prophecy. On Kid A, he resembles Samuel Beckett’s aging protagonist in the short play, Krapp’s Last Tape—an old man alone in a bunker listening to recordings of his own voice from thirty years ago. For Beckett and Yorke, the postmodern world barely allows communication between an individual’s past and future, much less between distinct people. Facing this emotionally sterilized eventuality, we might as well be clones.
Does Radiohead glorify alienation? Do their albums descend into despair, defined as “the complete abandonment of hope.” I could be flippant and remark, as I did before, that Britney Spears and Five for Fighting push me to the brink of despair; but the merits serious consideration. From my experience as a fan of Radiohead’s music, hope springs from three sources:
First, the band is politically active. As an outspoken opponent of globalization, Radiohead has participated in Jubilee 2000, LiveAid, and countless other charity concerts. Total despair would lead to paralysis, not active engagement.
Second, the band resists the consumer-driven culture of major-label marketing and distribution. Consider the “pay-what-you-want” release of In Rainbows, or the stripped-down campaign behind Kid A. By reinventing their sound and constantly experimenting, Radiohead refuse to become an easily-marketable commodity.
Third, the hope is in the wounded but transcendent beauty of the music.
This last point is the most important. Beauty is in itself a source of hope because it indexes the Beauty inherent in God’s creation. A microcosm of this occurs in “How to Disappear Completely;” the majestic centerpiece of Kid A. The slow-burn acoustic strumming, keyboard line like the sweep of a lighthouse beam, and minor-key melody establish a mood of almost unbearable melancholy accompanied by Yorke’s ongoing preoccupation with vanishing or disappearing:
Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes
I’m not here
This isn’t happening
I’m not here
I’m not here
From there, the song disintegrates into a grinding, churning cacophony, out of which Yorke’s falsetto soars above the sonic chaos like a bird escaping a collapsing cityscape. As with Henryk Górecki’s otherworldly Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a lament this beautiful can never fully succumb to despair. There is hope in the beauty; hope in the transcendence such beauty affords the patient listener.
The last track on Kid A, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” could serve as the theme song to Walker Percy’s existential novel, The Moviegoer, whose protagonist Binx Bolling was so paralyzed by spiritual malaise that he lived life vicariously through movies and superficial stimuli:
Red wine and sleeping pills
Help me get back to your arms
Cheap sex and sad films
Help me get where I belong
“Motion Picture Soundtrack” is like a lullaby to a fallen world, a world in which humanity has lost all sense of the divine and finds solace in artificial escapes: red wine, sleeping pills, cheap sex, sad films. It is a poignant, all-too familiar coda. The last line is “I will see you in the next life.”
As if this world holds no chance of happiness or redemption, Yorke’s lyrics frequently refer to the afterlife, or to a world beyond this one. “Pyramind Song,” the second track on their next album, Amnesiac (2000), opens with the ominously beautiful lines:
I jumped in the river and what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
All the figures I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
The words are set to plangent piano chords and a vocal melody as elementally haunting as a chain-gang dirge. On Hail to the Thief (2003), Yorke imagines that “In the flood, you’ll build an ark, and sail us to the moon,” as if our world had finally become the deserved victim of God’s wrath.
Perhaps significantly, probably not, Yorke named his son Noah. In any case, fatherhood can have a mitigating effect on the temptation to give up hope, to throw in the towel. With a new life to take care of, the time comes to help patch up the holes in the hull rather than to stand by and watch the ship sink. Elsewhere on Hail to the Thief, Yorke sings “I won’t let this happen to my children.”
Despair-inducing solipsism must, in the presence of a child needing protecton, give way to a larger, more hopeful worldview. In 2007, Thom Yorke released an inward-looking solo album called The Eraser, composed largely on a laptop, that included the telling lines,
No more going to the dark side
With your flying saucer eyes
No more talk about the old days
It’s time for something great.
In an interview following the release of The Eraser, Yorke said, “I’d guess one doesn’t really need reminding of the ice outside at the moment, do you? It’s maybe a good thing to try to make music that feels reassuring in some ways—something that’s got a good feeling, a good vibe about it.”
Radiohead’s latest album, In Rainbows, finds the band at their most relaxed, confident, and melodic. They are aging gracefully, evolving into Elder Statesmen of art rock. Many of the band members are now husbands and fathers, and the mellowed-out sound reflects an honest transition from Angry Young Men to politically engaged, musically adventurous artisans. This is not to say they’re sipping tea in their rocking chairs. The sublime outro to the song, “All I Need” expresses Radiohead’s continuing schizophrenia, with the lines, “It’s all right / It’s all wrong” looping over a breathtaking wall-of-sound.
Whatever the future holds (and the future is a persistent theme in Radiohead’s music), the band’s legacy is secure. They have soundtracked an epoch. If they have cast a line to those who feel lost and alone in a dark sea, then the music itself—questioning, bleak, but beautiful—has spiritual value, even if it doesn’t provide the answers we expect or want. Von Balthasar wrote, “Communion is established on Good Friday, after the cry of dereliction, and before the tomb is burst open, in the wordless silence, beyond speech, of being together in the alone.”
Radiohead’s music communes with those who despair in the face of a confusing, violent, and materialistic society. The darkness of their music is a reminder that Hell is not only physical suffering, but the trauma of God’s absence. If God is Love, and love can only exist in a communion of souls, then Hell is the loneliest place imaginable.
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