Today, I want to do something a little different. Last week, Radiohead announced that their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016), would release digitally on May 8. Before the record dropped, the band came out with two music videos for “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming.” I have listened to Radiohead since 1993 when they released Pablo Honey and “Creep” took over the airwaves. In the years between that breakout album and Kid A (2000), I did not fully appreciate the band or their impact on not just music but culture as well. When OK Computer (1997) came out, I didn’t appreciate it. The same could be said for The Bends (1995); however, between 1997 and 2000, I became a fan, especially when Kid A appeared and “Everything in Its Right Place” started playing through my speakers.
From the very first time I heard this song, I knew it would be one of my favorites. In fact, this is the song I want played at my funeral (a morbid thought possibly). The song centers on someone recording a videotape with a message for his or her loved ones, telling them that everything will be ok. While we do not necessarily know, exactly, what happens when we pass on, we do know that the people who remain must continue without us. For me, letting people know that life will go on and I will always be there (when I do pass on) is important. Perhaps the most poignant line amidst the piano, delayed drums, and bass comes when Thom Yorke’s voice tells the listener, “No matter what happens now you shouldn’t be afraid because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Online, the lyrics read “I shouldn’t be afraid,” but when I listen to the song, the “I” does not come through clearly, and it sounds like Yorke sings “you.” In this way, the thought of people carrying on despite the loss of a loved one becomes more notable.
Whenever “Idoteque” comes on, whether I’m driving, working, or just sitting around the house, I want to dance, but that desire to dance, which comes from the monotonous beat that forms the spine of the song masks the underlying dread of the lyrics. Every time I hear this song, I get images of nuclear winters as people try to escape by hiding n bunkers like in Fallout 4. Whether or not the lyrics are a mash up that arose from pulling out scraps from a hat, as some have said, the overall tone and imagery creates an apocalyptic feeling through not only the lyrics but also through the haunting background vocals that accompany Yorke and repeat, on a loop, underneath his own. These background vocals enhance the feeling of mechanization, disjointedness, and overall dread that the song conveys.
Speaking of haunting songs, “Climbing Up the Walls,” with its “scary” soundscape, creates an atmosphere of fear and dread. Focusing on the internal thoughts of the human mind, this song chronicles the hidden thoughts that lurk behind a person’s eyes by presenting them not just lyrically but canonically as well. From the very beginning, samples of laughing, hysterical laughing almost, can be heard before Yorke enters and sings about those hidden images in the brain. After the initial lyrics ends with Yorke repeating “climbing up the walls” three times, the song deteriorates into a sonic mess for the last 1 minute and 40 seconds. Guitars swell, drums drive, the bass pushes forward, all amidst strings and electronics as Yorke finally screams, agonizingly, “Climbing up the walls” in a growl reminiscent of Kurt Cobain at the end of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” All of this makes for a song that examines the deep held secrets of the human mind, those unspeakable thoughts that people do not want illuminated in any possible way.
Seemingly simplistic, “Give Up the Ghost” begins with Yorke’s falsetto singing “Don’t haunt me” as he hits the beat on his guitar. He then loops those vocals underneath him as he sings the rest of the song creating a wall of melodies and harmony that paints another haunting soundscape in a manner similar to “Climbing Up the Walls,” albeit less chaotic. The song only contains an acoustic and electric guitar along with the vocals, but when listening to it, the looped sounds makes the song sound fuller, filling it out in a way that appears to be more intricate. Like a couple of the other songs on this list, “Give Up the Ghost” deals with loss and death, or at least the struggle of giving up eventually. For me, the lyrics, as is the case with say those on “Idoteque,” serve as an instrument, not to be favored over any of the other aspects of the song. In this way, Radiohead reminds me a little of The Jesus Lizard and David Yow’s desire to have the vocals as an instrument, not set apart. “Give Up the Ghost,” from a sound standpoint, does not favor one instrument (vocal or guitar) above the other and should be taken auditarily as a whole, not just lyrically.
Still an underrated album, Hail to the Thief contains a number of good songs from “Sail to the Moon,” “The Gloaming,” and “There, There”; but my favorite has to be “Myxomatosis.” Named after a disease that affects rabbits, causing them to die quickly, the song creates the feeling of uncertainty and chaos with everything from its distorted bass to its disjointed dumps to Yorke’s staccato delivery. “Myxomatosis” sees the band dealing with fame in a more direct manner than they do on Meeting People is Easy, and it presents an interesting look at fame, its “responsibilities,” and the public’s reactions to certain actions. I’ve used this song in classes when discussing metaphors and symbols, and students are quick to note the metaphor of myxomatosis with the way the media interprets what celebrities say and do. For me, the most telling lines for students come when Yorke intones, “But it [words] got mixed up, fucked up, strangled, beaten up” when it appears in print. Later, he drones, “Yeah, no one likes a smart-ass, but we all like stars.” No matter what he, or other celebrities may try to do, it gets over analyzed and possibly comes across as inflated egos. When your words and deeds become misconstrued, it could cause anyone to become crazy.