Radiohead’s Emotional Cryonics




A MOON SHAPED POOL is a conventionally beautiful, emotionally forthright, and notably muted Radiohead album. As to be expected, the music is densely decorated, carefully constructed with small ornamental gifts that reveal themselves upon each listen — the most notable being the inclusion of the London Contemporary Orchestra — and imbued with the band’s reliable mix of melancholy and dissonance.

It’s a fine offering in one of popular music’s finer catalogs. It is not, however, as Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene described the album’s first single “Burn The Witch,” a “vintage splash of Radiohead stomach acid, a cloud of gnats unleashed in your cranial nerves.”

You’re excused if you have trouble, as I do, deciphering the competing metaphors begging for our attention — the sentence, likely written in a frenzied elation, might as well be code, a cipher for what otherwise could be read as pure excitement.

Critical enthusiasm of this sort is hardly new to Radiohead, and Greene isn’t alone even at his own publication, for falling into its trap. Since the release of OK Computer — the band’s first great statement — and further exacerbated by the subsequently subversive Kid A and Amnesiac, critics and fans alike have attempted to meet the band at its most abstracted and emotive moments in search of meaning, with diminishing returns. The consequences of which have often painfully resembled a teen’s poetry diary. [1]

Take this for example:

The butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky, which seemed as strikingly artificial and perfect as a wizard’s cap. The staccato piano chords ascended repeatedly. “Black eyed angels swam at me,” Yorke sang like his dying words. “There was nothing to fear, nothing to hide.” The trained critical part of me marked the similarity to Coltrane’s “Ole.” The human part of me wept in awe.

Or this:

Radiohead react with unusual tranquility, as if embodying the crying minotaur on Amnesiac’s cover along with the album’s musical themes. When life begins to speed up this time, they don’t try to catch it, but rather watch it from bleacher seats. There’s a dour acceptance of that on the electronic sigh of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”, especially in its closing strings.

To quote one fan after exhausting various interpretations of a favorite B-side on the Reddit thread I’m baked, and I believe I have understood Gagging Order a little more than before: But it is Thom Yorke, so for all we know it could really be about mustard and cats.”

There’s history here, for most of which I do not blame the band.

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In 2001, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross profiled Radiohead as they toured the world amid the surprising success of Kid A and Amnesiac. In an excellent examination of the artists (one of the few essays, it is worth noting, that explained the band’s intrigue with reference to musical notes and chords), Ross picked away at the tension that has long existed between the band’s music and the reception of it. As Ross understood, at the time, and certainly to this day, the band’s fans have been a rabid sort; both insufferable one-uppers of trivia and earnest converts, people who as Carl Wilson recently articulated, have always seemed excessively “adamant about their access to truth.”

“What fans seem to like, even more than the content of the songs,” Ross wrote at the time, “is the sense that the band members have labored over every aspect of the product.”

Ross continued:

They are skilled, first of all, at inventing the kinds of riddles that teen-agers enjoy unraveling. The records, the videos, the official Web site, even the T-shirts all cry out for interpretation. Why are words spelled funny? What are all these charts and diagrams? What about the grinning bears and crying Minotaurs? “We liked worrying over that kind of thing when we were kids, and we’re still in the same mind-set a lot of the time,” Selway said. “But it’s a bit incidental. We’re dead set on the music.”

In an ironic reversal of Selway’s quote, however, much of the literature surrounding the band has treated the music as if it were “a bit incidental.” In its place, we’re given color and feeling: deeply personal descriptions about the listener’s first experience, metaphors and similes devoted to various and increasingly untethered interpretations of often banal lyrics, winding digressions on the hidden messages one might unearth in the latest live recordings and interviews, or inquiries into the state of Thom Yorke’s personal life, for example.

In other words, the truth is apparently found in everything but the music.

This is partly the result of few critics having the facility to articulate, as Ross does in his piece, what is actually interesting about the band on a compositional level. It is also partly a result of the unhealthy and unconstructive infatuation with Yorke’s lyrics, which has often distracted from the many more interesting musical ideas offered by the band, and which can be traced back to the turn of the millennium.

But there is, of course, another more philosophical reason why Radiohead invites such florid critical prose.

“Pop music always tells its listeners that their feelings are real,” Mark Greif wrote in his wide-ranging essay on the band for n+1, and few bands have delivered on this promise better than Radiohead. Their explorations of alienation, paranoia, self-loathing, and meaninglessness at a time of gung-ho globalization and technological utopianism, felt like a form of protest in and of itself. That the band incorporated these themes both figuratively and literally — the merger of electronica with traditional guitar rock or the cryptic code of their lyrics beside album artwork — and that they did so earnestly, with emotions laid bare, only bolstered that feeling.

Through their music, the band quickly became reliable purveyors of self-actualized individuality, and in exchange for that feeling, in order to make it more than what it was (a commodity), the band demanded you work for it.

“You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles […] might refer to the songs,” Nick Hornby wrote of Kid A at the time. “In other words, you have to be sixteen.”

The retreat from the outward earnestness and accessibility in albums like The Bends and to a lesser degree OK Computer to the reclusive works of Kid A and Amnesiac signaled the band’s complete realization of pop’s promise as Greif articulated it. By making things smaller, and by shrouding them in layers of distorted voices, organs, drum machines, orchestral electronics, and coded games, Radiohead managed to manufacture a more intimate, more impenetrable landscape. The soaring guitar solos and lyrics — “It wears me out,” and “for a minute there, I lost myself” — were replaced by the skittish sounds of electronica, and elliptical lyrics — “yesterday I woke up sucking lemon” — and Yorke’s once crystalline voice was now clouded and distant.

With Kid A, the band started making space through isolation and putting distance between their music and its listeners. “Radiohead’s songs suggest that you should erect a barrier,” Greif wrote near the end of his piece, “to protect yourself — and then there proves to be a place in each song to which you, too, can’t be admitted.”

After carving out a den for their millions of misfits and meaning-starved fans with emotive and serenely beautiful, artful pop on The Bends and OK Computer, the band’s inward movement toward privacy, a space “closed to interference,” confounded its ardent listeners and pushed them to the periphery.

But rather than retreat, fans grew recalcitrant, insisting that despite the newly erected “barriers,” they too could find a way in. What followed has been a sort of prolonged and devoted treasure hunt for meaning largely focused on Yorke’s lyrics, and the interplay between real-life band biography and its mythology. [2]

In this interpretive vacuum, the band’s listeners have stuffed in trivia, competing lists and album rankings, fan fiction, and increasingly hyper-personal and interpretative essays masked as criticism. The latter have often read as a hybrid between musical analysis and furtive love letters to Yorke, specifically. And within them all lies the same core interest: an itching desire for the band’s validation, and an open door to the barrier once erected.

Radiohead’s jarring reorientation during the Kid A and Amnesiac period was not meant to usher in a permanent state of listening or musical understanding, but to offer a stark reaction to a particular moment in time, a retreat after unexpected stardom, a safe haven, as Greif identified it, from the increasing intrusions of modernity. Ironically, the cult of technology would prove the most conducive atmosphere for the sort of emotional cryonics that have dogged their later, more welcoming and lucid works.

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The reality of on-demand everything at anytime, where streaming music services with impossibly large libraries are the norm, has drastically altered not only how we listen to music, but also how we experience it. “Everything exists on one plane, so it is harder than before to know exactly where we stand in time,” Dan Chiasson writes in The New York Review of Books. In this new reality, Radiohead, a band that has always been keenly aware of its time and surroundings, has been forcibly removed from its context. Now it can mean anything to anyone at anytime.

One can listen to “Idioteque” for a burst of energy during their morning run, “How To Disappear Completely” on a particularly quiet commuter rail ride home, or “The Tourist” while getting through a day of work. More than any time before, the band and its music — all music for that matter — can exist outside of its first lasting memory and cultural signposts; it can simply be an everyday utility instead of an experience. All major music streaming services — including Spotify and Apple Music — offer various playlists designed to complement the listener’s task at hand, time of day, or mood.

In his novel Orfeo, Richard Powers describes the owners of this new musical reality as “minister[s] of culture for [their] own sovereign state of desire.” In this new reality, a sort of musical brinkmanship, an endless array of almost but not quite satisfied listening emerges. Of this phenomenon, Powers’s character poses a question: “How many tunes does anyone need? One more: The next one.”

Such a dramatic shift, no doubt, will spawn its fair share of fervent reactions and side effects. For every financier relying on an upbeat Radiohead song for fitspiration during that last set at the gym, there’s an over-serious teenager or equally over-serious adult poring over the latest message boards in search of new interpretations of the lyrics. The latter should come as no surprise. If this new technology has neutralized music to a mere utility for some, it has also normalized the sort of obsessive listening Hornby rightly ascribed to teenagers and music critics: “The music critics who love Kid A, one suspects, love it because their job forces them to consume music as a 16-year-old would,” Hornby wrote in his infamous takedown of the album.

As the latest round of reviews and list making clearly demonstrates, we Radiohead fans and critics appear firmly in the obsessive camp, frozen at the turn of the millennium, knocking on a door that no longer appears locked. We continue to stalk the message boards for new nuggets of trivia, re-rank our favorite songs and albums, and bicker over picking the sole masterpiece among many. We continue to dress up our fairly common and widely held feelings in elaborate prose and metaphor. We will forever be carving out that personal refuge Radiohead gave to our younger selves some time ago, and we will forever keep searching for meaning that no longer applies or was never there.

Greif was aware of this outcome when he ended his essay a decade ago: “The politics of the next age, if we are to survive, will be a politics of the re-creation of privacy.” That so many of its listeners and critics remain anxiously seeking refuge in the band’s music and games suggests we have yet to locate a privacy of our own.

That says a lot about the world we live in, no doubt, where both privacy and identity are concepts increasingly abstracted by the presence of the internet and its accordant technologies. But for the music, it’s simply a shame. Of late the band has signaled a calmer, clearer, and more embracing sound that demands little beyond that which is offered at face value. This is especially true of A Moon Shaped Pool. Despite its coded title and surprise release, the music isn’t hiding much, and neither is the band. [3]

During the writing of this essay, Radiohead announced an audio live-streaming event designed, it would seem, for its most ardent followers. The event included merchandise giveaways, “competitions,” “instructional artwork” by long-time collaborator Stanley Donwood, and in a quasi-intimate gesture, favorite playlists from members of the band, including Yorke.

It is an undeniably welcoming gesture following the band’s most welcoming album in over two decades. It is also Radiohead at its most intimate. The band and Yorke specifically seem to be giving their fans what they’ve long asked for: their privacy.

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Nicholas Miriello is an editor and writer in New York.

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[1] I should know, I kept one.

[2] Witness Greene coming to terms with Yorke as real-life person and mythical creature in his review: “‘Hey it’s me, I just got off the train,’ Yorke sings, and it’s a strikingly ordinary image: the Paranoid Android himself, picking up the phone and calling someone to tell them he’s just arrived.”

[3] I’m aware that “Daydreaming” closes with a hidden message, where Yorke repeats the words “half of my life.”


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