Alas, Poor Yorke
A revealing solo album from Radiohead's lead singer.
In 1994, Radiohead released a single called "My Iron Lung"—it was the British band's first dispatch since their hit "Creep" had made them instantly famous the previous year. This new single didn't seem to deviate from the quiet-loud-quiet script of their breakthrough moment; in fact, despite its elegance and maturity, "My Iron Lung" offered itself up a bit too easily. An electric guitar line snaked its way around singer Thom Yorke's exhausted falsetto, just as it had on the hit that now threatened to box them in. There was the occasional splatter of loud guitar and a taut, hiss-stalked rhythm section—signifiers all too familiar to anyone who had heard "Creep" more than once. But 116 seconds in, the band made a choice. There was the slightest of pauses and then a brutal, all-negating ambush of noise. Beauty succumbed to power; Yorke's voice took on a demonic curl; and the band achieved the dread of their singer's "Creep"-denying, machine-questioning lyrics. Some 20 seconds later, with chords holstered and melody restored, a fact was confirmed: Radiohead was indeed a one-hit wonder. They were too smart to make the same mistake twice.
Everything that would follow was seeded in that left-turn. Despite a breezy tune here and there, Radiohead would never lunge for another moment of pop ubiquity quite like "Creep." Instead they retreated into their craft, carefully guarding their brand and swabbing everything they released in baffling layers of abstract electronic textures. Radiohead's profile only grew, as fans committed themselves to tracing some ideational thread through the band's ever-changing moods: from the by-the-numbers ennui of their 1993 debut Pablo Honey; to the expansive, highbrow arena rock of their breakthroughs, The Bends and OK Computer; on to the intense, post-guitar experimentation of their recent discs. The cult ballooned into a small republic, with the ablest citizens concluding that something out there—in the world and their experiences with it—wasn't quite right. This sense of anxiety grows on The Eraser, the excellent and surprisingly intimate debut album from Thom Yorke. After a string of brilliant, inscrutable protests from within the modern world's vast bureaucracy, Yorke turns toward a surprising new subject: himself. Trading the Big Ideas of Radiohead for the pathos of the solo album, The Eraser is a rare opportunity to understand how Yorke actually feels. It is no less gripping—or confusing—than his band's best work.
There has always been something profoundly dreadful-feeling about the music of Radiohead, but where that sound originates from isn't immediately clear. The band—Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway—balances muscular riffs with inward, texture-obsessive laptop compositions. Yorke's lyrics aren't particularly descriptive, and even when they do seem topical the band steps in to thwart close readers. An example: They claim that the political-sounding content of their 2003 album Hail to the Thief had as much to do with current affairs as it did the 1888 presidential tilt between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. It's these sorts of straight-faced claims—ones that make you wonder if Radiohead is really smart or just dryly sarcastic—as well as occasional references to Chomsky and No Logo and snipes at Bono that contribute to the widely held belief that they are "important." Even if you hate Yorke's temper-tantrum whine or think their arrangements are self-indulgent, this sentiment is pretty much accurate: One always gets the sense that Radiohead is attempting to make sense of modern life—to represent the unrepresentable.
The Eraser tinkers with more approachable subjects—love, loss, pain, etc.—and it accomplishes something curious. The album's thinness emphasizes just how hefty and unified Radiohead's sound has become, as they've finessed their way from a guitar band to one dominated by keyboards and computers. On The Eraser, all that empty space is filled in with Yorke's vocals—no longer just a layer of sound but a driving, animating force. It is a reminder of just how unusual Yorke is as a singer, blessed with that desperate, insistent voice that often seems too radiant for the words it is forced to form.
Yorke is bracingly front-and-center on the erratic "Skip Divided," a truly strange expression of devotion ("When you walk in a room I follow you 'round/ Like a dog/ I'm a dog. … I'm your lapdog, yeah!"). He floats wishfully over the pings and whirrs of "Atoms for Peace," hoping to be taken into a willing pair of arms. On the title track, Yorke tiffs with himself, one meek half attempting to erase the other—it ends with a rare moment of intimacy, the singer bellowing on as the track fades. Exhaustion strikes on "Analyse," the rhythm of a fast life overtaking his wish "to think things through." And he seems to be addressing himself over the wobbling guitars and bass of "Black Swan." "I made it to the top," he sings drunkenly, before acknowledging, "This is fucked up/ Fucked up." One of the album's most stunning songs is "Harrowdown Hill," a bit of slow-motion synth-pop that never names its evil but conveys its presence well. "Did I fall or was I pushed?" he wonders, warning anyone listening not to "walk the plank like I did." As with most of Yorke's lyrics, it's not immediately clear what is "fucked up," what plank he has walked, and whether this song is about love or modernity. But what makes pop songwriting so occasionally powerful is the slippage of meanings, the fact that statements of interpersonal affect can be metonymic for larger statements on the world, or the human condition, or whatever. So, when Yorke sings about betrayal and filth, happiness and good times, the confusion can be engrossing. Last year, as part of a charity album benefiting children living in war-torn areas, Radiohead recorded a haunting, unadorned song called "I Want None of This." Was it a riposte to an ex or just another pop song about the public sphere? Perhaps both.
The Rapster label recently released Exit Music: Songs With Radio Heads, which featured musicians from every pop idiom offering recognizably alien takes on Radiohead favorites. (Covering Radiohead isn't a new fad; open-minded classical and jazz musicians recognized a kindred spirit years ago.) It is a surprisingly pleasant compilation but one that only emphasizes the chasm separating Radiohead from everyone else. Few of the covers home in on the underlying assumption that makes the band so ceaselessly fascinating: the fact that they believe in larger mysteries, with their songs mere clues. Radiohead's career has been based on conveying that paranoia and anxiety without direct description, and the comfort in listening is knowing that you are not alone. Perhaps this is why Yorke's solo turn is so engrossing—he finally shades in the very human feelings that first inspired that fierce and detached howl. There's strength in numbers and comfort in the democratic fullness of a band; but there's a greater peace to be found in knowing oneself.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from My Iron Lung EP © 1994 EMI; Hail to the Thief © 2003 Capitol; The Eraser © 2006 XL, and Exit Music: Song With Radio Heads © 2006 Rapster. All rights reserved.