Thom Yorke of Radiohead
The focus of this week's "Track Attack."
In my own opinion, Radiohead is indisputably one of the greatest bands of all-time. Akin to the Beatles, the band has been able to constantly morph; uniting mainstream and underground music with every "bewildering" turn of their career.
Though the band can rest its laurels on the cacophonous sounds of “The National Anthem," or the rhythmic-writhing of "Paranoid Android," they are at their most sublime when they keep it "simple."
Granted for Radiohead "keeping it simple" is still a complicated matter. One moment Thom Yorke is innocently-oohing backed by brooding piano and the next he's talking about "jumping in the river," and "swimming with black-eyed angels."
"Pyramid Song"- Amensiac
In another instance, a lush acoustic-guitar line buoys Yorke's melancholic lyrics; underpinned by organ. As the track grows it swells into a massive bridge with Yorke straining to sing; wearing his heart on his sleeve. The song then dissipates into more of Yorke's yearning as it rides the guitar and organ out, until there is nothing left.
"Fake Plastic Trees"- The Bends
In both of these cases, the band masterfully maneuvers between sublime and simple without breaking a sweat. However, in Radiohead's hall of fame, one track does the balancing act better than all the others.
At first glance, "Videotape," doesn't appear to amount to much. As the final track on 2007's In Rainbows, it seems to serve its purpose as a meditative album closer with little else to offer. The band originally premiered the track during their '06 tour, alongside other eventual album cuts: "15 Step," "Bodysnatchers," "All I Need," "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," and "Jigsaw Falling into Place." Then, the song was just one among many new tunes being tested, slotted somewhere in the middle of the main setlist.
"Videotape"- (Live from Bonaroo 2006)
Early live version
I'll admit, when I first heard the song in the context of the whole album I was underwhelmed. The album already had the muted "All I Need," to play the role of deceptively simple song, so what could "Videotape," really offer? "All I Need," had wickedly-timed drum hits, alien-sounding synth, and some of the best piano playing on a Radiohead track to date. In reality, the song was all I needed to quench my thirst for that highest order of Radiohead songs.
So there "Videotape," sat in my library, an under-appreciated and underplayed piece of a much larger musical puzzle. When I dusted it off again, I saw what I'd been missing. Now that open piano figure immediately demands my attention. The opening pierces my soul in a way I didn't think was possible anymore. Even now, as I listen to Yorke singing "When I'm at the pearly gates, this'll be on my videotape," I find myself gasping for air, struggling to comprehend such cryptic lines.
The song's devastating beauty increases as those haunting piano chords set-in and Yorke grows even more desperate. "This is one for the good days, and I'll have it all here in red, blue, green. Red, blue, green," croons Yorke. He's clearly reflecting on his life, but the lyrical brilliance of the song is that we don't know how deep his reflection is. Is Yorke on his deathbed? "This is my way of saying good, because I can't do it face to face. I'm talking to you after it's too late." At this point it's safe to say "yes." As Yorke's singing comes to end though, we hear that "today has been the most perfect day." So now we're back to square one. Did Yorke just have one phenomenal day that's forced him to take stock of everything that's come before or is the really how he says goodbye?
"Videotape" (Live from the Basement)
Intimate 2007 take
One great certainty that does permeate throughout out is Yorke's unyielding love for an unnamed subject. "You are my center when I spin away," declares Yorke. As loathed as it is, Radiohead has had a great knack for writing wounded-love songs since "Creep" first hit the airwaves in '93. However, that song's genius was in its display of unrequited love. There's none of that here, as Yorke is able to not only "say goodbye," but acknowledge that his love is "his center."
"Creep"- Pablo Honey
That pain of saying "goodbye" is something the band amplifies to great effect during the song's final segment. As Yorke finishes telling his love she "shouldn't be afraid," the two-stepping drum beat fully morphs into what resembles the click-clacking of a train car. In this moment, doubt creeps in again and we begin to think this love of Yorke's isn't so strong. Perhaps it's as unsteady as that train so readily invoked.
With little time left in the song, everything but that piano flees the scene and one lonesome chord wafts up before Yorke is gone again, maybe forever; leaving only his videotape behind.
All of us fear saying goodbye, so the power in this song lies in Yorke's great defiance of a possible death. As wistful as Yorke is, he still accepts the possibility of Mephistopheles dragging him down. All the while, Yorke doesn't play the blame game and though he mentions the "good days," he spends little time in the past because of his dim future. It may be Yorke's way of "saying goodbye," but in reality it should be all of ours. We should take the good with the bad, we shouldn't be afraid, we should regret nothing we've done, and like the band we should find the sublime in the simple.
"Videotape" (album version)- In Rainbows