Radiohead’s music embodies a kind of distortion that synchronizes with the psychic distortion of modern life. They manipulate a seeming chaos of sounds into modulations that amount to a mystification of the daily drudgery and distress, of life under constant threat. This is so because our culture’s fertile ground is the fundamental alienation and self-determination of existentialism. One sees it even in action movies like the Bourne series, which portrays the absurd man: one whose character is defined by his unreconciled nature, one who is in a constant identity crisis. Radiohead serves as the Greek chorus, singing the internal reality and drama of the world stage, the tragic anthem of that identity crisis and constant threat. Their music is the magic and mythology of the fragmented self in various incarnations of alien abduction, body snatchers, incantations of disappearance, and transformation.
In their current album, A Moon Shaped Pool, the song “Identikit” is a romantic disintegration through the violation of identity as it’s recreated in the imagination of the beloved. It’s the musical version of “hell is other people.” Even in a highly political song like 2+2=5, there is a lyrical battle between the state of the world and its demands on the individual. “’Cause I’m not” becomes the response to oppressive power. Conformity is impossible because it does not conform to the incoherent self struggling for clarity. Their instrumentation too plays into the recurring theme of identity crisis, for instance, in the way “Karma Police” ends with a kind of electronic screech that becomes part of the music or how they consistently incorporate odd, mutated sounds, sometimes using them as the basic rhythmic pattern. With each new album one must learn how to listen to them, just as each new self must ferret out and figure its own meaning. Every subtle oddity produces enough discord to make us have to reimagine the patterns we have come to expect. Take the song “Talk Show Host.” It has the following lines:
I’ll be waiting
With a gun and a pack of sandwiches
In a thread about this song I noticed a comment which said that if the word “sandwiches” were “cigarettes,” the song would be perfect. I understand the impulse. When I first heard the song I too expected the word “cigarettes.” We’re pulled into that expectation by the word “pack.” But it’s precisely because Radiohead didn’t say “cigarettes” that this song is better than perfect, it’s unexpected, like most of their songs.
Our heads swim in clichés all day. The phatic phrases of our daily mental bread are insidious. Detective shows and action movies of every genre train us not only to hear, but to think guns and cigarettes go together and the phrase, “pack of” must be followed by “cigarettes.” But the good writer violates that trained expectation just enough to make us notice, but not so much we simply ignore it as nonsense. The poor writer fails in his easy euphony, his words blending into the background of everyday discourse. The invisibility of phrasing which the platitude constitutes is what that casual internet critic considered perfection. But Radiohead is a group of great musicians both in their music and in their lyrics, and most often in their choice of subjects. Though clichés creep into their lines, they do not cripple the song because they are on the whole unique. They don’t write the love lyric that litters the airways. They write about the enervating job, about buying elections, cannibalism, paranoia, predation. They’ll turn a journey through the psyche into a walk through the woods and an insight into compassion born of human nature, or retell Goethe’s Faust through an entire album’s thematic development, or transform the existential emptiness eating at the heart of modern life and articulate it in various measures of identity crises.
“Talk Show Host” is another incantation if identity crisis. The speaker is conjuring the courage to embrace the inevitability of his demise, death being that which we all face as our ultimate self-defining moment. It’s no wonder this was a b-side to “Spirit Street,” another song about facing death which is so dark Yorke explained in an interview they must perform it toward the end of their concerts because it’s too draining. The fate of the speaker of “Talk Show Host” is the same, a dark amor fati, which makes that choice of “sandwiches” over “cigarettes” profound because it binds the speaker into the inevitability of his fate by the power of its phonetic interlocking. The quoted verse from “Talk Show Host” doesn’t end with “sandwiches” but continues the litany of items the speaker will have with him:
I’ll be waiting
With a gun and a pack of sandwiches
“Cigarettes” would have been a poor phonetic choice because it has no relationship with the “nothing” that follows it, and of the two primary words preceding it—“pack” and “gun”—it shares only the guttural G with “gun.” But “sandwiches” shares an N sound, tying it to the end of “gun” and the beginning of “nothing.” The speaker of the song is embracing his end, his oblivion, his nothing. That N springs from “gun,” pivots within “sandwiches”—a wonderful word of sustenance for someone holding out just long enough to confront his end—and so descends into the beginning of “nothing” that repeats like a fading echo. The sound structure binds what he does and what he is with what he will become: not just a nothing, but the nothing. That’s why the last words of the song are “I’m ready.” It’s an existential version of “It is done.” Or, more apropos, as Matthew Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna,” it is a violent affirmation in the face of the inevitable. As Empedocles leaps into the volcano, he cries,
My soul glows to meet you.
Ere it flag, ere the mists
Of despondency and gloom
Rush over it again,
Receive me! Save me!
As with so many existential figures, the speaker of “Talk Show Host,” finds his greatest affirmation of life by defining his end on his own terms. “You want me? Fuckin’, come and find me.” In other words, I will not come to you on your terms; you come to me on mine.
This song is old in the catalogue of Radiohead music but it is far from atypical. It is not an anomaly in their music but the norm, which also makes them peculiar among contemporary music groups. Nearly everything they produce is an experiment and a successful experiment. That pack of sandwiches, its perceptual displacement, is in the first song, “Burn the Witch,” of A Moon Shaped Pool. The line just before the chorus is, “Sing a song on the jukebox that goes. . .” It seems tame enough but the line is simultaneously outdated and modern. Jukeboxes are not common in the world of digital downloads and iPods. But they aren’t as foreign to us as a dunking stool. The song employs some images of witch hunts: “if you float, you burn,” or “cheer the gallows.” But most of the lyrics are general enough to apply to any time: “abandon all reason,” “stay in the shadows,” “avoid all eye contact.” These are things all people do in all times when paranoia shapes the world, such as now in the days of global terrorism and mass surveillance. It’s what makes the line in the chorus, “we know where you live,” so chilling and relevant. It’s what recasts the other lines like “cheer the gallows” as symbolic. It could as well say “cheer the drones.” This song is not a song about long ago but about today, because the nature of the witch hunt has changed but the psychology of it has not. And that is the genius of the song and of Radiohead. They write songs of psychological depth and the modern condition.
Their lyrics are frequently tenuous, and Yorke’s articulation sometimes difficult to understand. He employs his voice to evoke emotion rather than merely vocalize a message or tell a story. Their songs are lyrical leaps, pointed epiphanies rather than narrative threads. So the words in songs like “Sail to the Moon,” or “How to Disappear Completely,” are threadbare, repetitions that serve as incantations meant to conjure rather than narrate a story. By the end of the latter song, Yorke abandons words for a beautifully haunting howl. There is a similar transformation in the song “Optimistic.” At the edge of their songs is always the threat of death, of collapsed identity, even of mass extinction. No articulation suffices in the face of annihilation no matter what its shape and thus York is reduced to lyrical screams and howls in the face of oblivion.
If you see Radiohead live, sometimes Yorke waves his arms in the air as if to articulate his phrasing with his fingers, seeming to cast a spell. Every group member, at different times, performs with their eyes closed, even the drummer, absorbed in mental concentration. Their songs raise the spirit of our age: its fragmentation, its warped sensibility, its perpetual crisis. They are magicians as much as musicians, high priests as much as performers.