How do Radiohead do this over and over again?
What is the formula for beauty?
Why must we be so hit and miss when Thom Yorke is so fucking consistent?
Here is a list of all the Radiohead or Thom Yorke songs by which I have ever been haunted, obsessed or deeply touched, in roughly chronological order: ‘Just’, ‘My Iron Lung’, ‘Planet Telex’, ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, ‘Creep’, ‘Bodysnatchers’, ‘Faust Arp’, ‘All I Need’, ‘Little By Little’, ‘Separator’, ‘Backdrifts’, ‘Optimistic’, ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘Everything in its Right Place’, ‘Guess Again!’ and maybe now ‘Spectre‘. Two more listens and I’ll know.
People who don’t get Radiohead really don’t get Radiohead. All the criticisms are valid. Thom Yorke’s voice is moany. The beats are repetitive. The mood is generally angsty and depressive. Reggie Watts’ parody really does sound like Radiohead.
And yet the music is beautiful. For some reason, Radiohead’s unique combination of abstract lyrics, melancholic synth, drum machine and killer production have catapulted them to the kind of international praise once reserved for big capitalist ventures like Madonna.
What’s more, Radiohead have bedded down inside some of the best and worst moments of my life.
There was a time I escaped class to hide in an empty corridor at school, because I was too depressed to concentrate and I needed more than anything to listen to ‘Climbing Up the Walls’. The character in the chorus became a personification of my depression, and I was soothed to hear it speak – “and either way you turn, I’ll be there” became almost reassuring, and listening to the guitars was like listening to my own emotions played back as beauty. People feared I was wallowing, but that was an utterly empty understanding of what I was doing. I was watching my sadness become art so intimate that I loved it – and to love is half the battle for the depressive.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
I was once amongst the dregs at a stranger’s party in a stranger’s house. The night had been a little wild but was winding down – it was somewhere between 2 and 4am, the lights were dimmed, and remaining revellers had divided into kissing couples. I decided to curate the soundscape, to cover (and perhaps accompany) the sound of lips on lips. I browsed the Spotify playlist for something of the right mood and settled on The King of Limbs. I lay on a free sofa, washed over suddenly with exhaustion, and ‘Separator’ bathed us all in warm sound, the sound of complete and utter benevolence.
These are snippets of musical memory so intense that they structure my sense of self. As they have with so many people, Radiohead have embedded themselves into every significant stage of the last 10 years of my life. I can tell you that at 15 I was listening to The Bends, sneaking my iPod into my Year 10 classroom to steal 30 seconds of ‘Planet Telex’ when the teacher wasn’t looking; at 19, it was ‘Little by Little’, closing me off from the world through my earphones as I walked along Oxford streets; last week it was ‘Guess Again!’ accompanying me on my commute through London, acting like meditation on my heartrate and wellbeing.
When the scrooges frown, judge, criticise, I know their words are often true. But like the complaints of science to faith, they fall on deaf ears. I’m not listening to them. I’m listening to Radiohead.