Vocalist Thom Yorke’s latest two releases, the first Amok, with his new band Atoms for Peace, and the second his second solo offering Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, strike a relationship between human nature and the modern day zeitgeist.
Themes of intellectual escape and physical actuality are juxtaposed from line to line, held together, like in all great songwriting, by the very fact of reality. There is a push and pull in both these albums, between society and the individual, inevitability and perpetuity, future and present.
Yorke’s close collaborator Stanley Donwood created album art for Hail to the Thief, Radiohead’s 2003 release, that depicts maps of the cities of Hollywood, New York, London, Grozny, and Baghdad, smattered with words from roadside advertisements, as well as political discussions surrounding the War on Terror.
This was a marking point for understanding the way in which topicality functioned in Thom Yorke’s music, although none of the songs on the album dealt directly with any specific historical event in an overt way (save perhaps for the ambiguous yet obvious “January has April’s showers” line from the opening track, in reference to global warming, an issue that was just starting to reach a boiling point among political and media-represented conversations at the time of HTTT’s release).
The album was also indicative of Yorke’s seeming ability to “infiltrate” the subconscious of the age, the zeitgeist. Through Donwood’s art, it became easier to understand Yorke’s process. Delving into the modern psychology of advertising and media, Donwood contextualized Radiohead’s music, revealing to a younger generation the way in which not only the media, but music too, could reach the subconscious. And it did, at least with me, reach areas previously untouched in the way I thought.
Yorke’s music, contextualized by Donwood’s art, helped to contextualize the advertisement itself, dragging it out, and out of it the negative image, or (in)human aspect, that it represented within the individual or group consciousness that came into contact with Radiohead’s music.
My reason for writing this may very well go against the grain of Thom Yorke’s, Donwood’s or Radiohead’s philosophical will, and I do it, as Fred Moten said in his piece In the Break about Amiri Baraka, to further radicalize that philosophy’s intent.
Traces of the sociopolitical remain submerged in Yorke’s recent release (Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, 2014), but they are often difficult to see. The first of Yorke’s last two albums (Atoms for Peace: Amok, 2014) has at its core the inner-combative narrative of career vs. genuine growth, enjoyment vs. well-being, and the sunken eyes of a portrait in negative appear naturally in the latter, of two lovers in “Interference”:
We stare into each other’s eyes
Like jackdaws, like ravens
The ground may open up and swallow us
In an instant . . .
But I don’t have the right
To interfere . . .
Is this acceptance and inviting release into love that has evolved in Yorke’s music from the more conflicted terms of “Default,” from Amok?
It slipped my mind
And for the time
I felt completely free . . .
The draw in this music pertains to the way in which narrative is absorbed, absolved, and submerged, breaking the surface again in each new form it takes, whether it be from album to album, from song to song, from line to line, or from word to word.
It is, in effect, an improvisation: Yorke continually riffs off the themes that are unsettled in our age, and presumably in his own psyche—searching, probing, seeking out consciousness for an answer; the listener, confronted with the riddles he presents, must on some level remain content to leave the question unresolved.
In Hail to the Thief, the inescapable is the rift by which the listener is judged. Yorke’s characters in Amok wear their mortality as a mask, while taunting the rest of the world with its own inevitability. As the narrative unfolds in his music, all the way through to TMB, that judgment remains, haunting, like the ghosts of his previous work, Yorke’s characters, and sometimes, for those of us familiar enough with his work, his audience.
However, his voice dances in and among these ghosts as if they held no power over him. This is not to say that they have lost their power; in fact, the truth of his lines “in the future leaves will turn brown / when we want them / I don’t have the right / to interfere” (from “Interference”) does not lead us to the conclusion that Yorke’s notoriously contrarian will has been effaced.
It presents us with a natural evolution: from the inevitability of change, to the acceptance of that inevitability, and then toward the change itself, which internally is its own form of acceptance. We are left to hope that in the future, that change will encompass the external world as well. For now, it has become tangible, and is that not all we could ask?
However, it is not simply ambiguity, nor is it the textual weakness of Thom Yorke’s most recent album that, at least in his songs, he relinquishes control; it is his emotional strength. It unites the listener with an idea that is in coming with the times.