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Computer says not OK

What Thom Yorke did when Radiohead weren’t making music

A version of this article was originally published August 5, 2022 in Times Literary Supplement

NO BAND CAPTURED the uneasy feeling of the final years of the millennium more faithfully than Radiohead. As the band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, recently put it: “I don’t know why we thought it was the last days on earth, but I guess we did.” Song titles such as “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Paranoid Android” offer a sense of their fixations. After starting out in the early 1990s as a standard alt-rock band, they grew more ambitious and experimental. Electronic beeps and automated voices turned up alongside the guitar and keyboards. The lyrics often seemed to be in quotation marks – overheard snippets, self-help platitudes, corporate blather. Weaving together these borrowed sounds and clichéd lines made for some strikingly original music. After the release of their third album, OK Computer (1997), Radiohead secured a devoted international fan base as well as critical adulation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this made them miserable. Yorke in particular came close to a breakdown. But in 1999 they entered an intense creative period that culminated in the recording of two albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), that would go on to be considered masterpieces. During this time Yorke and Stanley Donwood, a friend from art school who had done most of Radiohead’s cover art, were churning out visual materials – sketches, paintings, digital images – as well as scribbling lyrics, lists and notes. These ephemera have now been gathered and published in two books, Kid A Mnesia: A book of Radiohead artwork and Fear Stalks the Land!: A commonplace book.

In Kid A Mnesia’s introduction, which takes the form of a dialogue between the two collaborators, Donwood describes his role as “extracting what the music looked like from the music [itself].” While Kid A Mnesia comprises mostly images and Fear Stalks the Land! mostly text, each is a mishmash of words and pictures. Recurring motifs, such as variations on the cute-creepy minotaur on the cover of Amnesiac, show up in both. They embody Radiohead’s tone: portentous, ironic, arch. And, like the music, many of the images are quite beautiful, in an ethereal, disturbing way.

The books are also intended as a glimpse into a fertile artistic process. After OK Computer Yorke suffered from severe creative block. His girlfriend at the time, he reports, told him: “‘Stop trying to make music. Stop completely for a while.’ So I was wandering around just drawing anything I could see.” This loosened him up, as did his collaboration with Donwood. Yorke marvels that he and Donwood felt at liberty to “paint on each other’s paintings, and write on each other’s writing,” in a partnership they recall as idyllic.

In that sense the books are not visual analogues to the albums: while the band are known as musically perfectionist, here they are displaying rough drafts and rejects, repetitive and unrefined. The aesthetic is reminiscent of the zines of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their unmethodical pastiches that prized intuition and randomness. Only the most dedicated fans will want to pore over every page. But in addition to Radiohead’s idiosyncratic preoccupations, there are intimations of broader societal anxieties, some of which jump out amid today’s headlines. A polar bear crouches on what remains of an iceberg. A drawing of two smarmy men in suits, locked in an embrace, bears the caption “EXCITING NEW DIGITAL REVOLUTION.”

In an interview with Yorke in 2019, Stephen Colbert noted that Radiohead’s work had expressed apprehension about the world for decades, and asked: “How does it feel to be right?” Like the albums they salute, the contents of these books are very much of their time, but in some ways they seem even more timely in our current era of widespread fear and foreboding. More happily, they also remind us of the potential to mine those feelings for art. As Yorke puts it, “Kid A and Amnesiac are, if nothing else, a celebration of what is possible when a bunch of people get together and forget about everything except trying to create work that speaks to them at that moment, in a sort of frenzied, last-days-on-earth kind of way … that kind of madness is important.”

Source: Times Literary Supplement

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