We’re having a little discussion on the Dusted board about Charlie Wilmoth‘s review of In Rainbows. Wilmoth himself asked me to amplify my statement about Thom Yorke‘s "Dear John letter to samsara." So I did. I’m reprinting my reply here, because I think I made an OK (Computer!) case. . .
Radiohead started out sounding like a bright, sensitive kid who occasionally threw tantrums because of his/her inability to cope with the world’s a): callousness b): aggression c): duplicity. The Bends provides great examples. Well, besides the outright love songs. But what are love songs really, besides a form of grasping?
Such tantrum-throwing takes a lot of energy. Eventually a kind of resignation emerges: too tired to fight, but still kvetching under the breath.
Yet the space between railing at the world and almost giving up creates an opportunity for self-examination, which can be quite painful.
Enter OK Computer. Let’s not focus on the Floydian dystopic aspects for a moment and instead examine the emotional arc. The narrator is an observer, one who feels guilty in his own complicity with the myopic, greedy and self-serving world around him. He wears the garb of the Accuser, but the clothes don’t quite fit right anymore. Could the problem be how he is relating to the world? Attempts are made to reconcile Self with Other, but there are still tantrums, such as in "Karma Police," which is a kind of pun on the whole process. The narrator again indulges in what he is coming to learn is an ineffective attitude; he lines up the "guilty" in the hopes that they receive their "Just" deserts. At the end of the song, he realizes his folly, exclaiming, "phew — for a minute there, I lost myself." Which I take to be both funny and deadly serious. There’s still a safe home base to run back to. But for how long?
By Kid A, the narrator is truly committed to the act of eradicating Self. The accusatory tone is still somewhat present, but instead of casting aspersion, he tries to "disappear completely" and leave the whole sorry mess behind. Of course that’s impossible.
Amnesiac follows the same theme.
The clouds have parted some on Hail to The Thief, but the result is a pretty generic political-rock album, as performed by Radiohead — a notoriously unspecific band. So it comes across as weak salsa.
The new one picks up where Amnesiac left off, but now the narrator seems to have made peace with the fact that there is no escape from samsara, being that all causes and conditions spring from mental activity. For the first time in a while, there is actually joy in
dealing with the world, and the perspective switches from that of accuser to instructor. There are admonishments to mindfulness and widened perspective throughout the record, with the overall message being, "It’s OK, just remember that there is space, and nothing is fixed or permanent." I view this as a particularly Mahayana message. . .
So that’s really it. I swear on Jonny Greenwood‘s cheekbones.