There’s a song I’ve had stuck in my head for over a year now. And not just the music—it’s like the idea of the song is stuck in my head.
A quick note: the song is by the often-overhyped band Radiohead, which will probably make some of you groan, having endured annoying fans like me at a party saying eye-roll-worthy stuff like “I don’t think you understand though, every record they put out is completely changing music.”
I am a fan, and in this piece, I will talk about the band and I will talk about their music, but I’ll do my best to avoid waxing poetic or being annoying. I have linked some songs throughout, and if you feel so inclined, the piece will probably be much stronger if you listen along with the things I’m describing.
Alright. Back to it.
In 1995, Radiohead was still primarily known for their debut album’s single “Creep.” In the wake of that song’s worldwide success and their subsequent public exposure, the band recorded a second album, with immense pressure from both the studio and their burgeoning fanbase to follow up their first record with more hits.
This second album, entitled “The Bends,” failed to chart strongly, yet made its way onto many critics’ year-end lists. But before the lists were published, and the band still seemed in commercial and critical limbo, they toured the record as an opener for veteran rockers R.E.M.
It was during this time that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke began to suffer from severe anxiety attacks and depression. Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., counseled Yorke to deal with the stress of the tour by repeating to himself the phrase “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.”
That phrase would become the chorus of “How to Disappear Completely,” the fourth track on Radiohead’s controversial fourth album, Kid A. But to capture the significance of those words, the song needs a bit of context in the album.
Track 1 — Everything its Right Place
The record begins with an unsettling, undulating tone. Yorke’s voice is chopped up and layered over a set of synths and vocal samples, the whole time driving the beat as the Yorke sings “everything in its right place.” The nonsensical lyrics, the hesitating, jittering tone, the groove you can’t quite catch—all combine to create a feeling of hypnotic malaise.
Track 2 — Kid A
“Everything…” fades into the album’s spacious title track, where distorted vocals hum across a bouncing drum beat and the instrumentation grows more and more atmospheric. The effect is dulling and insulating.
But soon as this anaesthetic tone has begun to sit well, the song ends, and the guitar line of the next track comes jarring in.
Track 3 — The National Anthem
Horns burst around punching percussion, at first in little shouts and murmurs, but eventually in throbbing accompaniment. The song builds and builds, with the various instruments growing noisier and noisier, the cymbal crashing incessantly, the horns devolving into frantic wails. The sound builds and builds, pinned together by the beat, careening off the rails to a complete cacophony.
Then, as abruptly as it started, it sputters out.
Track 4 — How to Disappear Completely
And now we get to the song stuck in my head.
The faint, dissonant sound of an ondes martenot hums in. It feels almost like a distant tornado alarm. And seemingly without any regard for the pitch of this buzzing tone, a single strumming guitar takes over. Yorke’s voice comes in naked, without any of the vocal effects of the previous songs. The song builds, strings weaving in, gentle percussion pulling the melody along.
And for one, small, brief moment, a little after the four minute mark of the song, he sings the chorus “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” and the strings and vocal change key to rest in complex harmony with the drone.
In the midst of an album that seems to embody the looming dread of postmodern life, there’s a moment where the music makes peace with it.
But it soon fades back into dissonance.
Listening to this record now, I find that I’m struck by how much it reflects my experience of the world around me during this past year. Unable to turn away or sit still. Numbed by the noise of extremism, injustice, ignorance, and a dying planet. The drone of an impending doom seems ever-present.
And I’m anxious.
I wonder. When that moment of harmony comes—if it comes—will we even hear it?
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)