The world has accustomed itself to the murder of Radiohead. It was to die, as bands do, at the hand of its brainchild, Thom Yorke, the princeling of alienated authenticity and the leader of the biggest contemporary rock ‘n’ roll band taken seriously. The world was nervous. Since the legendary near-collapse of Radiohead in the wake of its OK Computer tour, entered into the historical record by the grueling documentary Meeting People is Easy, Yorke led the band back from the brink on the condition that the old Radiohead stayed behind. Sweep and bombast out, deconstructed arrangements and bloops and beeps in. Yorke mounted an arch retreat into the womb of laptopia, from which what had once been constant and loved would momentarily peep.
The non-breakup of Radiohead produced the classic but stunted Kid A, and its twin, recorded simultaneously, Amnesiac. Both too conventional and not immediate enough, Amnesiac sketched a return to guitar while dismantling the melodic rigor and compositional virtuosity that made songs like “Let Down” and “Airbag” reach for the eternal. But the raw, reeling emotion within “Morning Bell,” “Like Spinning Plates,” and other 21st-century Radiohead hits held fast. Hail to the Thief, the nominal “return to rock” that Yorke dubbed “OK Computer II,” suggested with its pivotal track “Where I End and You Begin” a synthesis of Yorke’s saving devotion to electronica with full-band guitar prowess. Yet for every “There There” was an “I Will,” or worse, a “We Suck Young Blood”– plangent yawls that either underutilized or obliterated Radiohead’s other four members. It was Yorke’s voice on Hail that was too often willfully difficult on the ears, not in adventurism or complexity but in dissonance and weakness. Radiohead never needed to impoverish itself musically to achieve the windswept, and the fear that set in as the band returned to private life with a lapsed Capitol Records contract was that the music would lapse, too–particularly if Yorke slipped further into the disproof of his talent as a vocalist and a songwriter.
Yorke is not the only genius to feel impatience and even hatred for his gift. After OK Computer, he despised the signature keen that brought forth, well, Keane, atop a flotilla of amateurs. Yorke has complained he sometimes can’t get his point across with his own voice. Artistic plus existential frustration seemed to equal, if not doom, then at least vast doubt. Radiohead rehearsed new songs for a tour but not a record. And in secret–with the same Nigel Godrich that Radiohead had released from production duties in favor of popsmith Spike Stent–Yorke communed with his machines and recorded his most consistent collection of strong music in at least six years.
The Eraser is what had been outside hope: a cohesive body of real work that fuses, not jangles, voice and instrument with “computer music.” Instead of destroying band or self, Yorke has succeeded in something more incredible. He has created a concept album as true and resolutely urgent as OK Computer, as grounded in the central crisis of its time and for that reason altogether different. The Eraser is a record about the murder of failing love–its death throes, its gasps and grasps at hope; its perversions and its longings; its erasures, and, finally, its erasure.
The tone and style required to accomplish The Eraser call for its clattering grooves no less than OK Computer did its own squalling glacial mass. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was, in the same manner, as definitive of the sexomaniac late ’90s as 2001 was of the violently evolved era in which it was conceived. The last word of Kubrick’s last film is, nowadays, often the first word in the conception of a postmodern relationship. In the nine fully realized tracks on The Eraser, Yorke charts the progress of a failing sexual and emotional relationship, in the most honest terms heard since the gorgeously frail 1998 B-side “How I Made My Millions.”
The lesson of failed desire which is the graveyard of many a soul in many a Radiohead audience is stated plainly and beautifully. “The more you try The Eraser / the more [...] that you appear,” runs Yorke’s first chorus. “The more I try to erase you [...] the more that you appear.” Denial fails too. One by one, the neuroses and coping mechanisms of our age of damaged loves and lusts are introduced and proved wanting. “A self-fulfilling prophecy / of endless possibility” is the dilemma at the heart of that sickness of soul which makes coupling now so fraught with dissatisfaction. The neurotic condition of our desire, Yorke knows, cannot be cured, as we all had hoped, by therapy: “there’s no time to analyze / to think things through / to make sense.” Identity itself is at too many removes, too far to bridge the gap from self to inner self, much less from inner self to inner other. “You’re playing a part,” he accuses in “Analyse.”
By track three, “The Clock,” Yorke warns that “time is running out for us.” By track four, “Black Swan,” warnings give way to wisdom: “What will grow crooked you can’t make straight [...] / You cannot kickstart a dead horse / You just cross yourself and walk away.” The idea, won of pain, that some relationships and indeed some people cannot be saved and do more harm than good is harsh truth for a handful of generations bred on the opposite of that idea. These days we are all supposed to be a little crazy, wicked, and fallen–as an episode of Grey’s Anatomy put it so piously this season, “broken.” At midpoint falls The Eraser‘s most broken shard, “Skip Divided,” the cankered heart of doomed desire. “I only got my name / I only got this situation,” Yorke’s ruined lover moans. “I thought there was this big connection.” The appearance of the other–be she estranged before, after, or during the relationship–is an eviscerating act of cognitive slavery and dignity disgraced. “When you walk in the room everything disappears / When you walk in the room it’s a terrible mess / When you walk in the room I start to melt / When you walk in the room I follow you around like a dog / I’m a dog, I’m a dog, I’m a lapdog / I’m your lapdog, yeah.”
But then “Atoms For Peace” lifts into the clouds, with one of Yorke’s top twenty most creative and angelic melodies. Hereon out, The Eraser proves itself a duality–a record about the erasure of love by failed desire and the erasure of love on Earth. Yorke, as is well known, hates the political condition of the planet. Climate change, crushing capitalism, and perpetual war are among his demons. Whatever one’s own convictions, the undeniable misery and doom that disfigure too much of the globe parallel the spiritual ruin and badly repressed despair of too much of American society. Leftists have long felt viscerally a link between brutishness on the social scale and the individual. Now those on the right, too, have seen for themselves a crude and debasing ethos that corrupts persons, separate and together, as much as it does community, capitalism, and culture.
Yorke illustrates the fusion of these themes most potently in near-closer “Harrowdown Hill”–the place where Dr. David Kelly, who dissented from the British justification for invading Iraq, killed himself. Yorke has called “Harrowdown Hill” “the most angry song I have ever written in my life.” Yet the chorus reaches, with trademark grandeur and startling intimacy, the exhilarated melancholy that has made and kept Radiohead devotees. “We think the same things at the same time / we just can’t do anything about it.”
There is no closure. “It’s all boiling over,” Yorke sings at the end; “your love won’t.” It is a final expression of mourning with a typical ambivalence. Love isn’t meant to boil over, but to endure–to attain fluid permanence in spite of what happens to the world, to me, to you. With The Eraser, Yorke’s accomplishment, if not permanent, aims for it in its apprehension of thematic, symbolic, and technical mastery. It does not resolve for the same reason that its subject does not resolve: the damaging erasure is ongoing, and the redrawing repair must be, in very literal terms, you-and-I.
James G. Poulos, essayist and doctoral candidate, holds his J.D. from the University of Southern California. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin