Dreamers, they never learn

Radiohead belong to ‘rock,’ and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free). Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation–not of the feeling of freedom–but of unending low-level fear. — Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop Music

Yesterday I immersed myself in the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it brought me into an emotional space I hadn’t been in for a long time. Reflecting on the times when Radiohead had been most important to me — urgently, even embarrassingly important — I recalled that it was always when I most felt like I needed a way out. I didn’t want sheer fantasy, I was always too cynical and pessimistic for that. Nor did I want to wallow and emote, at least not in an immediately legible way.

A song like “Lucky” hit exactly the right mark, which means that it displayed all the right contradictions. The lyrics were “officially” optimistic and yet the musical context — not just Thom Yorke’s delivery, but the dark and foreboding sound — made them feel sarcastic. And even within the lyrics themselves, there’s a strange contradiction:

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The superhero needs to be rescued? And the edge of what? We can’t be sure, but we do learn, in the next track, that we need to slow down — idiot, slow down, slow down. An airbag may have saved your life, but don’t tempt fate. Perhaps survival is the real superpower.

This album feels like a return to the OK Computer/Kid A ethos, not least because of the reappearance of one of their great orphan songs from that era, “True Love Waits.” The extant live recording (from the I Might Be Wrong EP) plays it as an earnest “acoustic guitar guy” ballad, a rare eruption of the raw emotion of the pre-OK Computer Radiohead. The current version presents that emotion — the desperation of an adolescent crush — as a ghostly memory.

It’s a foregone conclusion: dress like her niece all you want, she was never going to stay. That’s always how it was going to turn out, and the younger singer who is barely audible in the preternatural calm always knew (or wants to believe he always knew) that that was the case. Yet there’s nothing cynical about it. It’s not mocking the emotion — it’s somehow enshrining it in the very gesture of deactivating it.

By taking up a stance of contemplation, we become free, and dwelling in the deactivated versions of our feeling of being trapped, of all that paranoia and desperation and total alienation, is our way out. “Dreamers, they never learn” — but perhaps we can learn to dream differently.

2 thoughts on “Dreamers, they never learn

  1. I realize this isn’t the point of your post, but I can’t help wondering why Greif thinks that any of those musical styles have any of those things as their “characteristic subjects”, or why he thinks that they have characteristic subjects at all, or why he thinks it’s reasonable to just toss that claim off as if it were obvious and unworthy of support. If this is belletristic, hasten its death.

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