Radiohead has long occupied the privileged role of an unfiltered cultural node, a point of entry into mainstream culture for ideas or artistic forms associated with the perimeter. They are enormously popular, however their subject matter is, in controversion to that popularity, oddly unsettling, their vaguely expressed themes the more eerie for being unexpressed. They are a pop supergroup statistically, but not artistically. They digest the themes indigestible to the masses and pass them on to an audience that gladly accepts what would under other circumstances be anathema to it. Thematically, the isolation, frightening anonymization, and abstracted control exerted on modern life by hidden processes, both technological and political, and the combination of those forces to negate identity are not exactly grist for Anne Geddes. But this is what people across the spectrum soak up when they tune in.
On Kid A, the band emerged from their post- OK Computer silence with an album of undeniably electronic music, in the genre sense, in spite of the electronic genre being largely unaccepted outside of its cadres of enthusiasts. On the track Idioteque They sampled Princeton’s Paul Lansky’s first computer composition from 1973, “Mild und Leise”, and also a work from the same compilation entitled, “Short Piece”, by Arthur Krieger. Not only did they succeed in creating an album of highly popularly regarded IDM, but they also, by sampling such early experimental works, extended a pop audience’s acceptance of experimental electronic music from the present back to its very historical roots.
Wendy Carlos may have succeeded in the ‘60s and ‘70s in proving to the public that electronic instruments were fit to play culturally sanctioned classics, but Radiohead succeeded after the turn of this century in pop-culturally sanctioning the entire history and intrinsic possibility of electronic music itself from its inception into perpetuity.
Other bands have emerged in the last 10 or so years to grow along similar trajectories to Radiohead. There are two American analogs: Those chairmen of the American Id, Chicago’s Wilco, and Oklahoma City’s The Flaming Lips. Radiohead has developed in divergence from Wilco out of realistic necessity. Though both bands are experimental with access to an enthusiastic fan base that would be critical of its work under different circumstances, as Europeans, Radiohead lack the ability to access folk forms available to the American artistic palate. They have moved away from further exploration of the rock and folk genres, developing instead toward the technologically sanctioned realm of electronic instrumentation and the European tradition of classical arrangement. With respect to Radiohead’s developing distaste for recording the sound of instruments played in purely acoustic space, the band can be said to have embraced a similar path to the Lips, who have adopted an increasingly laptop-couture form of heavily offline-processed-and-produced psychedelia.
It is possible, and fitting to mention in light of the new record’s content, that soon stylistic forensics will become meaningless. Each reader of this article could just as well demand an audience for the recording they just completed on the computers they are sitting before, either denying conversation entirely in the demand for recognition for him or herself or by citing influences from such a convoluted roster of similar inspirations that common references become pointless to find. However, inventing circuitous genealogies of influence seems to be the record reviewer’s bread and butter, so we’ll proceed. The 2-D vocal sound prevailing on this record, the result of separate tracks getting compressed down to their essences and then played back with the expectation that you should perceive the components as a whole, is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 Loveless, with its wall of painted voices, and Brian Eno’s recent record, 2005’s warmly artificially atmospheric Another Day on Earth. The slow development of In Rainbows’ songs from quiet arpeggios into epic flourishes, not to mention the theme, has a forbear in Gary Numan’s 1980 Heroin-thick loss of humanity Euro-epic Telekon.
What the band laments on the new record is the loss of identity brought about by hypertrophied individuality. That loss, in a Gary Numan-esque twist, ironically is topical today because of the almost mechanically automated assertion of identity across many fronts- we write blogs that are search-engine-indexed immediately, our personalities are powered by identically formatted Myspace profile talking points and visually located on a map on our Flickr profiles, and our bill-pay services ensure our credit-entity counterparts can pay our bills independent of any action taken on our part. Where are we amidst our pre-formatted dating profiles and mechanized bills that accrue and pay themselves?
The way the production of this recording sounds is apt for the expression of the disassociation of information and significance, presence and identity, time and continuity. I mentioned above that there is a similarity in the style of American experimental band The Flaming Lips and the recent few Radiohead releases. Both groups are embracing the now widely-available recording techniques computers make possible. Musicians can now easily incorporate simulated spaces and virtual noises along with human generated sounds, creating recordings of a new kind of sonic space that does not exist in nature, a music disassociated from its own parts. It’s not new, no, and not specific to this record or this band, but very appropriate to the Radiohead message.
Listening to Radiohead has not, for a very long time, meant you were under rigors to understand even a word they say. Understanding the words absolutely hasn’t been a necessity. Elements of this current style, their focus on the voice as instrument, owe measures of respect to ‘90’s trip-hop bastard children Hooverphonic and their ’97 debut, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular. Though Radiohead’s OK Computer was released in that same year, Hooverphonic emerged first with a more complete voice-as-instrument backed by electronics aesthetic, one which singer Yorke has been improving until the current release. What has been achieved through this effort is an intensification of the thematic unease of Radiohead’s songs. Yorke is possessed of an otherworldly voice whose message is not explicitly clear. Onstage, he twists like a streamer on the tail of his own croons, that voice walking around a room on its own, disdainful of its body. A carrier of pure information, like light in the McLuhanist sense, his voice pervades the senses and lurks in every vestibular space in the songs’ arrangements. It portends and makes possible the beautiful dread and elegantly poised doubt of Radiohead’s oeuvre, but, present as it is, in its inscrutability is itself perceived to be empty of meaning.
What I’m getting at is not a breakthrough: Yorke is hard to understand. But the fact that his singing comes more to resemble singing than to actually being meaningfully intelligible in many cases is important to the long-building message of Radiohead’s music. Like a hum or those filler noises you make to span the passages of songs you don’t know, Yorke’s keening occupies center stage, and yet, ghostly and tremulous and garbled as it is, it seems to cancel itself out the more present, the more layered and audible it struggles to become. It is a voice that negates itself through use, expressing the horror of being empty of meaning. This is not to say that there are not lyrics, nor is it to say that there aren’t good ones. The lyrics are good, and they are there if you listen, but they are also, as they have been since OK Computer, sparse on articulation and exposition and heavy on mood.
This is at times the deliberate thesis and at times simply the symptom of the band called Radiohead. It is the idea that is always present. The more there is, the less we will have. The more the singer sings, the less there is we can hear. The more we try to be ourselves, the more certain we can be that we will disappear.
When Kid A was released in 2000 it was shocking in its unexpected newness, but the reaction to it was amputated by its surreptitious follow-up, Amnesiac. Almost snuck onto the market in 2001 as Kid A was still gaining momentum, Amnesiac confused the public by sounding remarkably like the big-billing earlier release and arriving on store shelves without much explanation. Here were more songs from the same recording sessions as Kid A, a whole disc’s worth more of the same aesthetic choices, and no framework to process them in. The effect was that these songs, whether fans came in time to appreciate them for themselves or not, became simply “more.” Radiohead’s music entered the realm of uncountable nouns like water, coffee, fish, and bread. Reinforcing the increasingly alienated subject matter of their albums, Radiohead gave their fanbase to unexpectedly experience less through more. The mainstream consumer public saw firsthand the diminishing returns of repeated experience as witnesses to the phenomenon of meaning leaking from acts that devolve from original declaration to pantomime. With more instances of the same information to process, our individual experiences become less unique, less memorable. The stuff of our passing hours, the sights and sounds of our feats and our enjoyment also pass into the unquantifiable. We forget ourselves, and our own memories, our personal milemarkers, become unmemorable in rote.
This is the point at which Amnesiac can be seen to have been aptly entitled. It was an exercise in the unmemorable. Then, almost as though for emphasis, they followed it with the critically forgotten shell of style, Hail to the Thief.
The band is not simply playing at these same tricks on their new album, but they are, as they openly admit, still conducting a social experiment. With the release of this record on a pay-what-you-wish basis, they have succeeded in de-temporalizing the notion of direct, objective monetary value as it relates to the object called an album. An act more tangible than the poorly-understood popular sentiment of “sticking it to the majors”, this is a marketing choice that speaks to the total customizability of the “have it your way” consumer culture we have become accustomed to deserve. Even formerly strictly defined objective value is demonstrated to be customizable, and this by one of the biggest, most commercially vetted bands in the world.
A fan could act with allegiance to abstract ideas of respect for musicians and pay the arbitrarily high, industry-set store price he or she is accustomed to paying for the download of this album, feeling good about supporting artists who bring him or her enjoyment. A fan could also pay nothing at all, either not giving it a second thought or still atoning in a spirit of reciprocity by justifying getting the album free by invoking another notion of an alternative economy: A blogger could pay nothing and assuage the guilt that might arise by paying with his or her time and free written publicity, conducting the purchase on a separate visual economy with its exchange of the labor of attention. Value, in this case, has become, not entirely unstuck from, but more freely and abstractly associated with its object.
It’s all the same to Radiohead, really. The band is an institution that doesn’t need to depend on album sales. The very act of an individual assigning value to something, formerly a meaningful action, becomes an empty gesture.
Once the record was officially put out on the market, music news outlets and bloggers near and far (though those descriptors don’t really apply any longer) rose to the task of comment. Whether it was felt most important to have the most comprehensive account of the album, to have the first account of the album, or both, writers got out there and did their best job of making it happen. Pitchforkmedia.com was ready to generate page views (advertising parlance) on the day of the album’s release with band interviews, multiple stories, a record review, and something called an “album guide”, ludicrous as that sounds. I wasn’t in Chicago that day, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they had interns hocking programs up and down the narrow sidewalks.
The point is, in a case of life imitating art, the great democratic institutions of print and especially the electronic media were, on the music news front, all talking about the same thing, slicing up and sharing audiences, rehashing opinions for readers shared across sites, and covering the same ground. The supposedly great forum provided by the Internet was, for something as schizoid as it can be, nearly univocal.
Radiohead had already demonstrated the ability to create sameness and feelings of emptiness in repetition of musical style, had already begun to hint at the very self-negation of the act of communication through the example of Yorke’s ghostly singing, and has now succeeded, with the new album, in demonstrating how our current systems of communication create emptiness of meaning by proliferating a sameness of information.
Through the glut of sources, the significance of available information is diminished. The perceived importance of a new Radiohead album practically necessitates comment, a call to action which many answer. With so many writing on the same topic there are fewer things talked about across the spectrum of productive bandwidth that is the human attention span. Couple this with the consumer impulse to customization, and it means that there are a lot of people blogging about the album while speed-skimming through RSS-fed headlines or browser bookmarks to guarantee being the most informed. Having it your way as a way of living thereby generates a hopelessly inundating amount of information on a narrowing range of topics with a diminishing audience of the truly engagé.
The proliferation and processing of information takes up all our available time. The apt metaphor is that of a Distributed Denial of Service attack. This is the practice of assailing a website or a network with simultaneous requests for small pieces of information from multiple sources until the target of the attack is overcome and cannot function normally while serving the requested information. Neither the malevolent requests for information, nor the information served until the system crashes are of any importance themselves. The only thing of any importance is that a content management system’s inherent ability to crash is realized.
The career of Radiohead and the behavior of the reviewing world has to date outlined the theme that modernity forces the individual into the paradox of self-negating self-assertion. The songs on the new record further emphasize that.
For all the lip service I’ve paid so far to Yorke’s unintelligibility, this recording does contain some of the most straightforward and audible singing recorded by the band in years. Much like Wilco, it seems there are places where the idea of experimental doesn’t need to sound experimental anymore- that sounding different is passé. It’s something of a return to the form of the Pablo Honey or The Bends days in that respect, even partially in terms of subject matter. All I Need has that outward sound of being an unseen admirer’s self-deprecating ballad of unrequited love (you might remember a little guitar ditty called Creep), but the lexicon, in light of the career they have built, means something more. As the publicly sanctioned harbingers of what happens next after what we value in being people is over with, and keeping in mind their role as one of the nodes of unfiltered acceptance of experimental forms into the mainstream, the opening lines of the song, “I’m the next act/waiting in the wings” take on special significance. As we attempt in contemporary life to navigate a deepening morass of informational glut and make habitual extremes of excluding or including information to keep the film narrative of our lives manageable, the lines, “I am all the days/you choose to ignore”, and “I’m in the middle of your picture/lying in the reeds” encapsulate not so much a simple Moz-core The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I get hot-and-bothered lurker persona, but the pervasive dread that even obsession is not enough to connect oneself to one’s own life, much less anyone else’s, in a world where individuality is governed rigorously by the full-time maintenance of genre- and identity-related information.
House of Cards forces the listener to be gored by the charge of a life of dissolving continuity made banal. Evocative of the separation of price and commodity in the sales strategy of their new record, the song opens with the singer’s stated desire to take the fruits of a relationship out of order and context: “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.”
Have it your way. The lyrics “throw your keys in the bowl/kiss your husband goodnight” juxtapose swinging and fidelity. The song ends with the with the admonishment that people should see something wrong with removing sequences from their lives in favor of an instant’s convenience, but don’t. “Denial, denial/Your ears should be burning.”
Reckoner, someone who keeps an account of things, judges them. It’s the song the album’s title was taken from, the phrase “In Rainbows” sung in the background during the choral/orchestral breakdown behind the line “Because we separate/It Ripples our Reflections.” This song has the intriguing line “You are not to blame for/bittersweet distractor/dedicated to all you/all your needs”. It is the single note of forgiveness amid the usual weird Radiohead chill, as though it doesn’t hurt to forgive a race that is already dead and gone at its own hand- a race culturally and environmentally cut off from everything, separated into individuals who are just reiterations of the individuals on all sides with no choices any longer but to make their constant reckonings of the tide of sameness amid the mechanization of thought and memory that buries our lives. Put that in your Facebook profile.
Identity disappears even in the ritual repetitions of the dance club in the song, Jigsaw Falling into Place.
“Just as you take my hand/Just as you write my number down/Just as the drinks arrive/Just as they play your favorite song/As your blather disappears”
Even engagement in passions- song, drink, being on the pull- negate the identity it seeks to assert in each activity’s sameness and interchangeability.
The final song, Videotape, is a fitting subject for finishing this rumination on the shattering of time, identity, and continuity. We’ve seen the technology that is the song’s namesake used in the courtroom to reframe a Rodney King on the pavement under police batons as a lawbreaker who is deserving of punishment. We’ve seen videotape used to order and organize the images and events of New York on September 11th, 2001; events that, once organized in a photoplay, can’t be anything more than a lie, because those are events in their deliberate chaos categorically in denial of organization. Without even touching on the lyrics, we can say that the song Videotape speaks to the manipulation of a surgically deconstructed and categorized and edited-in-post reality best wordlessly: as Thom’s voice layers in chorus over itself, you hear his breaths taken independently of his moans. The very sign of life (“check if he’s still breathing”) comes unstuck from the organism, and breaths are taken at random and without their sustaining powers. Cause loses effect, vice loses versa.
We approach the singularity, and Radiohead is we. The dread of their songs is our dread as we labor isolated from one another in a rut of prosaic as well as qualitative sameness, an information-inundated individuality that is too busy to be satisfied by recognition or give it. In Rainbows is a few songs before the lights go out on continuity and identity in a forum of repetition where every participant is responsible for seeing and participating in everything over and over again, but is unable to overcome the impotence and sterility of comment.