Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Wren Graves revisits the debut solo album from rock’s greatest poet of anxiety.
The music business as we know it has been dying for decades now, which places it in good company. Theatre, books, painting, and sculpture have all become permanent invalids, never quite recovering, but still, not dead yet. These different industries are suffering from the same condition: Call it a case of terminal technology. A stage play in New York can hardly have the same cultural relevance as a TV show watched by millions of people around the world; most people seem to prefer reading the posts of their friends to published authors; and while a painting of the ocean can be very nice, it was perhaps more special in the days before Google image search and cheap flights to Miami.
At the turn of the millennium, Napster and other Peer-to-Peer sharing services upended music by proving the obvious: namely, that people would rather not pay for things they can get for free. Some musicians took this news worse than others. Metallica, for example, waged a public war on Napster and in doing so damaged their credibility as don’t-give-a-fuck rock gods. To many fans, especially younger fans, it seemed that they cared a great deal — especially about money.
In contrast, the members of Radiohead generally come across as, if not selfless, then at least self-aware. After Hail to the Thief concluded their five-record contract with EMI/Capitol, Thom Yorke spoke to TIME: “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say, ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” Radiohead’s raised middle finger turned out to be their 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows, which did blockbuster business by asking fans to “Pay What You Want.”
But it’s the in-between period that interests us today. After touring for Hail to the Thief and before writing In Rainbows, Radiohead hit the pause button for the first time in their careers. They took a hiatus.
Radiohead’s members weren’t idle, of course. By my rough count, the hiatus produced one solo album, one film score, and five new children, to bring the total at the time to eleven. They were busy! But they were busy in different ways. By getting to see the band members separately, fans were better able to understand how the individuals worked together.
Thom Yorke’s The Eraser doubles down on the collage-style songwriting of Kid A and Amnesiac. At the time of the album’s release, he spoke to The Globe and Mail: “I didn’t really come into it expecting to make songs. It started just with random bits and pieces. I guess I thought there would be vocals, but I was thinking in terms of using little vocal shreds, and of making them part of the tapestry, not the main thing. But as soon as we had gone through the initial sketches, it became obvious that they could be quite direct. Nigel (Godrich, the producer) basically dragged me kicking and screaming toward the concept of them being actual songs.”
Photo by Autumn Andel
“Direct” is perhaps an overstatement; the songs are heavy on imagery and light on narrative. But of all the songs, the most direct is probably “Harrowdown Hill”, which deals with the death of whistleblower David Kelly. During the Iraq war, Kelly had been on the ground looking for weapons of mass destruction. He found none, because as we now know, there were none. So in 2003, when a British government dossier claimed to have found those weapons, Kelly anonymously told the BBC that the dossier had lied. Kelly’s identity was discovered, he was dragged through the press, summoned to Parliament, threatened with prison, and he killed himself — or is that just what the government wants you to believe? The song begins with a warning to other would-be whistleblowers: “Don’t walk the plank like I did/ You will be dispensed with/ When you become inconvenient,” and it explicitly references the conspiracy theories swirling around his death: “Did I fall or was I pushed?” Yorke doesn’t take sides: definitely suicide, definitely murder. The uncertainty surrounding the official narrative is the whole point. Yes weapons, no weapons? The truth has been destroyed.
Unless we’re counting Nigel Godrich as an unofficial sixth member, only one bandmate collaborates on The Eraser: Jonny Greenwood plays piano for the halting, haunting piano loop of the title track. The drumbeat wouldn’t be out of place in a dance song, and Yorke continues to layer over top — cooing “oohs” and electronic blips and beeps. He pulls back to just the piano and builds again. But his builds all have to do with layers, with more or less complexity. This is true of the whole album, which has none of the tempo changes we’ve come to associate with Radiohead and none of the epic quiet-to-loud dynamics of Radiohead songs of the era, like “Sit Down, Stand Up” or “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”.
Compare this to Jonny Greenwood’s big project from the period, his award-winning score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood. The score is nothing but dynamics. The opening notes of the score slowly fade in, raising in pitch as well as volume, splintering into discord before building to a single piercing note. The famous oil fire scene begins with silence. At the 2:14 mark, a lone drum sketches out an anxious heartbeat, before launching into a furious frenzy.
The whole score is predicated on tension: between low notes and high, discord and harmony, silence and volume.
This is not to suggest that Jonny Greenwood contributed all the big swings within Radiohead songs or that Thom Yorke is solely responsible for the careful sonic layering. Of course the two projects sound different; they were created in totally separate environments and with very distinct aims. But there aren’t many opportunities to weigh the band members’ individual contributions. Each solo project gives us more insight into the group; that’s actually the main appeal of Phil Selway’s solo records. They’re proof, in my mind at least, that he is a) Definitely contributing interesting musical ideas to the band, but b) Definitely not one of the main engines powering Radiohead. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are usually thought to be the primary songwriters, and that’s because, during the first hiatus, they each created something wonderful without much help from the others. So, no, the differences aren’t proof of anything. But it’s interesting to note that the two most prominent members of a band famous, in part, for intricate layering and dramatic changes in tempo and volume each focused on one of those things when left to his own devices.
To my ear, The Eraser has three duds: “Skip Divided”, “Atoms for Peace” (which was the name of the band Yorke formed to promote this album, along with Nigel Godrich, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others), and “Cymbal Rush”. The others are at least strong examples of Yorke’s abiding fascinations with technology, paranoia, environmentalism, and the destruction of the world — and at best, some of the greatest songs in Yorke’s illustrious discography.
Yorke’s fascination with the computer as an instrument has always been tempered by his distrust of what technology leads to. He deals with this explicitly on “Analyse”. The song was inspired by a blackout at his home, which Yorke saw as a kind of addition by subtraction. “A self-fulfilling prophecy of endless possibility/ In rolling reams across a screen/ In algebra, in algebra … It gets you down.”
To Yorke, the computer revolution will have consequences that can’t be foreseen, and this extends to the songwriting, too. Again, to The Globe and Mail: “Writing to sequences and samples is a lot harder. When you listen to them over and over again, you can’t react spontaneously and differently every time. What happens is you listen once, and go away and come back later and do it again, which, practically speaking, takes too long. In the end, I had to go away and learn to play a lot of it myself, somehow, in order to finish the words. I had to teach myself how to play the songs I’d half-written on sequencers, where I wasn’t really looking at what I was doing. It was quite a mad experience, learning it that way around.”
Photo by Autumn Andel
But the most elegant expression of this philosophy, and indeed, the highlight of the album, is “Black Swan”. It’s a reference to the Black Swan Theory, a philosophical problem about the dangers of induction. It goes back to Ancient Rome and a famous quote by the writer Juvenal, who used the metaphor “as rare as a black swan” — that is to say, nonexistent. Later, of course, black swans were discovered. Generally speaking, history is full of high-profile, rare events that could not have been predicted.
The Eraser was written during a particularly tumultuous period of history — a period of Black Swans. When the Internet became widely used in the late ’90s, could anyone have predicted how Napster and iTunes would disrupt the music industry? Would anyone have thought the Cold War, Gulf War, and invention of the airplane would combine so violently on September 11th, 2001? Or that two ostensibly democratic countries would contrive to lie to their citizens to gin up support for a foreign war? Yorke sings: “This is your blind spot, blind spot/ It should be obvious, but it’s not.”
And that, ultimately, is the great preoccupation of one of our greatest poets of anxiety: a simple fear of the unknown. “People get crushed like biscuit crumbs,” he sings, and there’s nothing to be done about it. For all our human reason, we are unable to anticipate the things we really need to know.