Why we need Aphex Twin now.

After years of near-silence, with only vague rumours of re-releases and hard drives full of music we’d never get to hear, this month we have been greeted with a new Aphex Twin album; Syro. We have missed him. We need him now more than ever, and this is why.

About halfway through the track ‘produk 29’, the third track on the new record, a sample of someone saying ‘fucking whore’ bubbles from the mix. This is the latest of several moments in the ‘Twin’s career where his music is catalysed into a sexually aggressive tour de force – in fact, in his recent interview with Rolling Stone he described himself as ‘horny’ for the album’s release, and he referred to his drum machine as ‘porn’ in a Pitchfork piece.  In much of his output the music erupts violently from the speakers, searching for a malleable surface upon which to impress itself. From porno samples in ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Come On You Slags’, the sinister nursery-rhyme lurch in ‘Milkman’, the pounding periodic beats (pun intended) of ‘Tamphex’, to its apotheosis in the unsettling vocal manipulation of ‘Windowlicker’, violence against women and the tacit endorsement of it through music has always been at the forefront of his work.

Indeed, ‘Windowlicker’ is a single that gets more and more prescient as time goes on. It’s a pastiche of the tendency to reduce female vocal representation in tracks to something approaching a melodic orgasm (not a completely new thing), as in his single the women’s voices are purged of any signification. The music video pokes at the objectification of women in post G-funk music videos, but it is not a phenomenon condensed to that genre, and the timely arrival of projects like Everyday Sexism demonstrate to what extent sexual dynamics are predicated on sex being something that is ‘earned’, that women are a switch that needs to be thrown, or a commodity to be exploited. Sexual aggression seems a natural by-product of James’ music – the density of the beats leads inevitably to a shattering of defence. I’m aware that this is moving into the territory of Susan McClary claiming that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the aural equivalent of rape, which is too far, but James at least raises the question of to what extent his tracks can take up one side of a sexual dichotomy, where women are slags and whores defined solely by their menstrual cycle, while still being palatable.

Employing heavy pitch manipulation on ‘Windowlicker’ shatters the illusion; there is no guarantee of titillating femininity slithering out of the speakers because at any given second, the pitch drops and the tone is decidedly more masculine, just like the women in the video gyrate with all the expected movements of sexy background dancers, but with the rictus grin of Richard D. James’ absolutely terrifying face. Such shock tactics work very well at demonstrating one’s own complicity in an entertainment industry which uses women as fluffers in all but name, offering a brief spurt of arousal, but not much in the way of a voice. This is a problem that’s unlikely to ever go away; the video to Calvin Harris’ ‘Summer’ (if you weren’t aware, that song was released in the summer) has women as props with as much autonomy as the cars which are driven in it.

James has invoked gender segregation in music before – he has claimed that ‘Girl/Boy Song’ was composed and named in an attempt to avoid such a thing, and the cover of the vinyl rerelease of ‘Analogue Bubblebath 3’ features enigmatic male and female pictograms, the type used to distinguish toilets in public places. It’s these little choices that make me confident that the use of women in his songs is quite a considered statement, and not just something done ‘for the boys’.

Cover of Analogue Bubblebath 3.

Cover of Analogue Bubblebath 3.

‘Fucking whore’ is not the only sample in ‘produk 29’: there are other snatches of conversation, one of which is ‘we were in the club last night…’, not just alluding to sexual politics but also the change in performance context of electronic music in the time that Aphex Twin has been making it. He made his name by DJing raves in his native Cornwall. A few years later, a combination of improving technology, legal pressure and a marketing drive to bring innovative electronic music to the home put an increasing divergence between the Warp records stable (record labels inspired by the new sounds of Detroit/Chicago house which were the first to spot the gap in the market for the domestic listener), and club music which filled the ‘going out’ vacuum left by raves.  Following the 1994 watershed, Big Beat acts like Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers congregated around centres like The Heavenly Social club, where the drugs of choice were alcohol based. It doesn’t take much to identify the sonic change to accompany the change of supplements: simply think of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’, released in 1996, with its refrain of ‘LAGER LAGER LAGER’. James’ discography offers plenty of incisive and satirical twists and turns on the development of electronic music since.

The 'Fantazia' rave at Castle Donnington, credit: Ian Lloyd @ Flickr. I'm sure older readers will find it amazing that someone my age can look back at raves through the prism of history rather than memory, but that's how it is - I find it unbelievable that these things were put together regularly, attracted tens of thousands of people, and were shut down almost as quickly as they sprang up. And only 20 years ago!

The ‘Fantazia’ rave at Castle Donnington, credit: Ian Lloyd @ Flickr. I’m sure older readers will find it amazing that someone my age can look back at raves through the prism of history rather than memory, but that’s how it is – I find it unbelievable that these things were put together regularly, attracted tens of thousands of people, and were shut down almost as quickly as they sprang up. And only 20 years ago!

Indeed, it is rare that he will merely follow the momentum of scenes and changes of direction; if he’s not doing his own thing, he’s skewering everyone else’s hipster pretensions, cf. the infamous sandpaper DJ set. Still, it is one way of thinking about his output in the late 1990s, gravitating around the Richard D. James Album, as well as the continued use of his face as a creepy icon. The move to programming music on computers freed him from some of the inherent restrictions to working with analogue synthesisers, and the complexity of his percussion grew accordingly. It freed the music of some of its obligations to dancing and turned out a more purely aesthetic product as a consequence. The growth of Aphex iconography is a facet of the decline of raving anonymity, by commentating on the emergence of the DJ-as-celebrity, but as ever with James, the end result is an incisive satire at ninety degrees to the bulk of the scene. To use Calvin Harris’ videos as an example again (I’m sorry, but I have to), he has made a lot of his featuring himself as the protagonist in a glossy Hollywood-style production – within the very specific mythology of Calvin Harris videos, I can’t help but think this is a calculated effort ever since he looked on with envy at Dizzee Rascal’s antics from behind the bar in the clip for ‘Dance Wiv Me’. So when Aphex blimps appeared in the sky in the build-up to Syro’s release, part of it was wheezy marketing hyperbole, but it was also the latest instalment in a long-standing satirical commentary on celebrity DJs. It preceded Harris and Guetta and it will probably outlive them as well, as their distinctive bland sonic footprints in the sand are washed away by the tide of time.

After moving to computer technology in the wake of …I Care Because You Do¸ James began the Analord series in a deliberate effort to be re-acquainted with analogue technology. Such movement characterises James’ ambivalent relationship with technology, and the wider comment that its inclusion in dance music makes. Another track on Syro, ‘XMAS EVET 10’, has a title which recalls the ‘Christmas Tree Exec’, or the first widely transmitted computer worm. There is precedent for this in the discography: Analord instalments 08, 09, and 11 all feature tracks named for computer viruses. That these names should occur as part of a technologically regressive project is significant. What you end up with is a strange cybernetic cross-section between computer viruses, the old trope of dancing being a form of hysterical mania needed to cure infection (as in tarantism, leading to the tarantella dance), and the divide between analogue and digital technologies.

The tarantella dance, credit: Lucafiano @ Wikicommons. This is something common to many cultures: traditional East African dances like the Kilumi have a mythic heritage in driving off demons.

The tarantella dance, credit: Lucafiano @ Wikicommons. This is something common to many cultures: traditional East African dances like the Kilumi have a mythic heritage in driving off demons.

This hybridization is reflective of something Aphex has talked about intermittently in interviews, for example his recent Rolling Stone interview:

“We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

‘Half-cyborg’ is a great word to describe the Aphex project. Even in the context of using analogue synthesisers, using file titles styled on computer viruses implies an unseen digital transference, that the phenomenon of dancing as a purge of demons within the body has been superseded by computer viruses. Whereas the history of the tarantella is dancing in order to rid one of disease, the equivalence of dancing with computer viruses reverses the dynamic, so that dancing is controlled and instigated by the new parasite through our half-cyborg bodies.

The promotional material for Syro has been a relentless breakdown of statistical material. The Analord series may have delved into the matter of viruses, but Syro’s immediate concern appears to be raw data, perhaps fitting given how much of an industry ‘big data’ has become during Aphex’s absence. The immediate worry of the digital space is not what it was 10 years ago – namely, the threat of malignant programs which could wipe out entire systems overnight (dramatized in Hollywood through The Matrix, Swordfish, The Italian Job et al), but the extent to which individuals can be broken down into discrete bits and bytes that are ordered and controlled by advertisers, corporations, and politicians. The preview single ‘mini pops’ has, on YouTube, a background giving detailed analysis of where, how, and when the track was listened to, and the cover art is a receipt for the total costs incurred in producing the album. Again there is the pressing question of how to receive music with such material around it; is the music itself just another form of data, another commodity that runs down the series of tubes with very little to distinguish it? This is why electronic music achieves the status of high art in the present day, and why Aphex Twin matters more than ever – he is the one best positioned like the gremlin from ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’, tearing out the fuselage in the plane with a sheer bloody-minded curiosity.

Lego mock-up of 'Nightmare From 20000 Feet', credit: Alex Eylar @ Flickr.

Lego mock-up of ‘Nightmare From 20000 Feet’, credit: Alex Eylar @ Flickr.

We can discuss all we like about how accurately novels, films and indeed any genre can discuss contemporary issues relating to the Internet and digitisation, but electronic music is unique at being at the front line, requiring digital tools for its composition and transference. Walter Pater said in 1877 that ‘all art aspires constantly to the condition of music’, as he felt music was the only art form in which the form and the subject matter are the same. He didn’t have to worry about how electronic tools could complicate this idea, as traditional instrumentation seems an ineffective way to comment on issues relevant to a switched-on world. I’ve written before about Radiohead and their contribution to interrogating the particular circumstances in which we live, but it is Aphex Twin and the IDM school which are closer to Pater’s vision of pure abstraction, and hence the purest concentration of the mood and concerns of the world in which they inhabit, with fewer barriers of mediation.

In doing so, James has always had a cheeky penchant for juxtaposing his most esoteric electronic compositions with acoustic-based works, like ‘Goon Cumpas’, ‘Flim’,’Avril 14th’ ‘Logan Rock Witch’, and ‘Nannou’. The latter two are strident examples because their music-box quality makes them steampunk, finding older parallels with computer production of music in autonomous devices. He exposes the myth of true authenticity with acoustic music, as even his most-stripped back compositions typically have the piano prepared or manipulated in some way.

Regina music box, credit: Daderot @ Wikicommons. Dates from the 1890s.

Regina music box, credit: Daderot @ Wikicommons. Dates from the 1890s.

He’s a rare breed, a musician whose early training came with circuits and ‘sounds’, and then working backwards to the avant-garde composers of Cage et al. He brings to acoustic instruments the methodology of an engineer, emphasising their potential versatility but also the hypocrisy in considering acoustic music to be somehow more truthful than electronic – equal temperament is a tuning compromise, after all (I wrote that days before Pitchfork published their interview with James where he talks a good deal about equal temperament in very similar terms. I don’t expect anyone to believe me, but I’m keeping it here in sheer stubbornness, mixed between pride and anger that I could come up with something that had a kernel of truth in it while being scuppered at the last moment. Fuck you, Pitchfork.). James’ music does not lead you to think of music as fidelitous to a particular ideal of using tools to make sounds, and logically progressing to emotions. His music is the inevitable by-product of systems, and his steampunk experiments prove it has a longer history than just the computer – instruments are not blank tools, but systems to be modified. Again, this is important in 2014 because he complicates the idea that if he just switched everything off, we would find ourselves in a more organic state – he shows how deep our dependence on closed systems is, even when we don’t recognise it.

Much of the movement of electronic music during James’ career has, of course, been instigated by him – Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk credits ‘Windowlicker’ as being the inspiration for he and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to come up with Discovery, an album that tried to show how electronic music could be the ‘soundtrack to people’s lives’. With no clubs in their native Cornwall to speak of, James and his peers largely developed their own music scene. The great advantage of being so removed from what is ‘happening’ in London is the ability to make music much more indicative of your surroundings and your consciousness, without the sacrifice to being part of a much larger whole, one which is out of your control. The end of raving as a public phenomenon and growth of living-room dance music paved the way for a closer channel of communication between artist and listener, one freed of the aspiration towards androgynous dancefloor utopia to some extent. It is to James’ credit that he has managed to consistently produce music which straddles both sides, fluctuating between bleeding-edge cool dance music and more introspective pieces that are intimately connected with the feeling of isolation and desolation along the south-west coast. There are some great examples of this: ‘Blue Calx’, with its metronomic percussion and bubbling synth all feeling very aquatic, like rain falling on a window. Alarm Will Sound drew this out brilliantly in their cover, probably the highlight of their Aphex Twin cover record. ‘Gwely Mernans’ extends the same sort of aural relationship, as the percussion’s slithering between left and right channels may be indicative of a lurking monster beyond your view or maybe you’re tripping and you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Drukqs as a whole is full of little interlude tracks that sound like someone going inside traditionally sacred, cavernous spaces – churches for example – and messing around with the instruments found in there, to continue the theme of challenging the sanctity of music – listen to ‘QKThr’,’ Btoum-Roumada’ and ‘Prep Gwarek 3B’ as examples of what I mean. ‘Quino-Phec’ sees James approach the mode of Boards of Canada/Brian Eno circa Ambient 4, playing up to the punning title of the album Surfing On Sine Waves as it produces the aural equivalent of swash and backwash on an empty beach. I have to confess I’ve never been to Cornwall myself, but the geography must be pretty intense to have influenced James and Eno (‘Lizard Point’) to make this incredibly unsettling ambient music.

Lake near the summit of Carn Marth, credit: Tony Atkin @ Geograph. 'Carn Marth' is of course, the title of a track from the Richard D. James Album. This is pretty much as dramatic as nature comes in England; I find it difficult to think this isn't inspirational in some way.

Lake near the summit of Carn Marth, credit: Tony Atkin @ Geograph. ‘Carn Marth’ is of course, the title of a track from the Richard D. James Album. This is pretty much as dramatic as nature comes in England; I find it difficult to think this isn’t inspirational in some way.

In his contribution to the 33 1/3 series, Marc Weidenbaum talks about how James and his friends were effectively creating their own music scene in the barren cultural landscape of Cornwall. Yet the barren geographical landscape is also present in another liminal space between the organic and the technological. Electronic music appears to be a very simple way of entering a world not tied down to geographical specificities, but the tracks mentioned above and indeed pretty much the whole of Selected Ambient Works Volume II allow some local ghosts to creep in. James memorably described that album as ‘like standing in a power station on acid’, though I’ve always been unclear to the extent at which that power station is functional; it strikes me as an abandoned one, with native vegetation reclaiming the instruments slowly blinking away into termination – not difficult to imagine when one remembers that album was only 8 years after Chernobyl.

Abandoned tin mine at Carn Galver, credit: Dave Green @ Geograph. I've always had a suspicion that the presence of these monolithic old bastions of industry may have had an influence on the sound of SAW II, or at least how James perceives it.

Abandoned tin mine at Carn Galver, credit: Dave Green @ Geograph. I’ve always had a suspicion that the presence of these monolithic old bastions of industry may have had an influence on the sound of SAW II, or at least how James perceives it.

What relevance does that all have today? Well, there are always refuseniks who need to be converted to the emotive possibilities of electronic music. Syro lacks any of the tracks in that ambient vein, and in fact James hasn’t written tracks in that style for over a decade, but they remain as astonishing pieces of work, a brilliant combination of music and sound effect which creates such a deep mental landscape, it makes you wonder when the rest of electronic music is going to catch up.

It’s always difficult to write about Richard D. James, because you can never be entirely certain that you’re not writing yourself into the punchline of a joke which is being made entirely at your expense. Having said that, I feel a bit more confident now that he has given some surprisingly candid interviews for the promotion of Syro, which I’ve quoted from here (even if it does mean breaking the hearts of IDM hipsters all over the world , who must be thinking, “Rolling Stone and Pitchfork? Really?”). Syro isn’t as revolutionary as some of his earlier albums, but it contains enough continuity to them to demonstrate his importance not just in making cutting-edge electronic music, but in sonically mapping the world we live in.

Can music change your life?

One of my most vivid memories is the point at which I started to listen to music. Not to hear, but to listen. Music became an active, kinetic thing, extending tendrils to the bottom of my soul, rather what came in fits and spurts through the radios of my parents’ cars.

On a tip-off from an internet message board whose users realised I liked Coldplay, I downloaded three songs by this Icelandic band called Sigur Ros from LimeWire entirely legal and reputable sources. I then completely neglected to listen to them, because what did those message board fools know? What could possibly compare to the tour de force of A Rush of Blood to the Head?

Weeks later, I found myself playing a compilation of old Sonic games on the PlayStation 2 called Sonic Mega Collection Plus while my PC idly shuffled down my selection of songs, mostly an ambient counterpoint to the Masato Nakamura’s blistering score to the games. At first it happened insidiously. It became apparent that almost ten minutes had passed with my blue companion making hardly any progress on Green Hill Zone. As Jonsi Birgisson’s plaintive vocals gradually faded away, I decided to stop everything and listen to this particular song again, ‘Svefn-g-englar’.

It was at that point I opened the box. This is how it starts; not with a whimper, but a ping. A strange sonar-like ping. For all the innovations which the song contains, it was this metronomic sound effect which pierced a hole directly into my brain and remains there to this day. It is just one of many clever tricks in ‘Svefn-g-englar’, along with the customary washes of echo and reverb, which give the perception that the music possesses so much space. For the young me, though, the space was not just limited to production trickery – the fact that this song was so long counted for an awful lot. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now identify just how jarring a change that was in terms of musical engagement. Popular music, especially during my formative years during the late 1990s, was all about instant gratification, in its music and its entire culture. It comes, sticks around for four minutes while narrating some moment of instant fulfilment, and then quickly leaves you behind again, only for the next source of titillation to arrive in its place. The ‘Svefn-g-englar’ EP was released in the UK on 27 September 1999. I didn’t discover it until 5 years later, but it’s still helpful to compare, given that it emerged into the musical world which was at that time bombarding me.

This is the UK top ten for the week of the release of the 'Svefn-g-englar' EP. You could replace the Wikipedia page for Ibiza with this picture and this would probably tell you more about it.

This is the UK top ten for the week of the release of the ‘Svefn-g-englar’ EP. You could replace the Wikipedia page for Ibiza with this picture and this would probably tell you more about it.

I’ve attached a screenshot of the chart for that week and while it isn’t shocking that the songs aren’t, y’know, spectacular, I was still quite surprised at just how many of them ticked the same boxes. Tail end of the Ibiza season – music videos with half-dressed women – dreams of riding pristine cars around the Balearic landscape – wonderful! It’s like you’re actually there. I appreciate that club music comes from a much different context, and that it DOES mean something to people who enjoyed excursions there – but not by the time it’s diffused into the provinces, where that weird Europoppy piano sound means very little when you’re watching the grey mass of your village through your bedroom window, made murky by autumn rain once more.

This was different. Instead of music becoming a cipher for a culture founded on ease and gratification, something you buy in HMV the same day you go into town to watch a bad film and treat yourself to a Yorkie bar, the sound was like some vast cathedral that encompassed everything and everyone within it. Hooks, the staple of popular music with their get-rich-quick promise, were replaced with Jonsi’s titanic eruption of texture from the guitar. And for all that, the strength of Sigur Ros’ composition is all the more palpable. The guitar creates the overall impression that the ground itself is shifting beneath your feet, and Jonsi’s voice is not so much a voice as a primordial vagitus, with the rhythm section forming a membrane for everything to travel through.

Of course, depicting such Damascene moments necessitates a measure of fictionalisation. I was not completely ignorant of the world of alternative music; I had heard a few decent alternative bands blasting from my older sister’s stereo, and I had always had a superficial fondness for Radiohead (I can’t tell for certain, but I think I managed to catch some of their Glastonbury 97 performance on the TV, albeit distantly –  ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ in particular just sounds too familiar to some distant corner of my memory), but the arch of Jonsi’s fragile falsetto harmonised with what I realised I truly appreciated in Thom Yorke’s own style of singing. The femininity associated with falsetto was a wonderful corrective to the stratified gender roles which our society demands of young people, and which is further thrust on them by popular culture. Rock music was persistently tinged post-Oasis with an insufferable reliance on phallic guitar playing and a general set of tropes which could be placed under the sub-category of ‘blokiness’.  The lack of posturing became my own personal act of rebellion, to try and deliberately reject surrogate gender codes that were inherent to the music that was forced down our throats. I like to think that the feeling is something each generation receives as its own particular gift, from David Bowie putting his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder in his Top of the Tops performance of ‘Starman’, or Morrissey wielding a bunch of gladioli on the same programme.

Also contained under this umbrella was an arrogant dismissal of anything more ambitious as ‘intellectual’, a criticism which continues to baffle me to this day. I can’t remember where I read it, and more worryingly I can’t find a source, but it was probably in another of Noel Gallagher’s rentaquote interviews that he said words to the effect of there being no such thing as ‘interesting’ music; only good or bad tunes. ‘Svefn-g-englar’ proved just how wrong he was – it surpassed any immediate valuation of mine as a good or a bad tune. It was just far too open, too insistent on creating an aural space outside of rock pretension, and moreover quite ambiguous with such an alien character and texture. I discovered the song in my first year of secondary school and I can distinctly remember how every day for a number of months I would rush home, waiting impatiently through the last lessons of the day, through the crawling bus journey (MP3 players being a rare commodity at that time), then the lift from the bus stop back home before I could run upstairs, fire up my 246MB RAM wonder, and try to connect with this abyssal 10 minute space, to try and uncover its mysteries while simultaneously enjoying its overpowering mellifluence, like being smothered by a feather duvet on a winter’s evening.

Look at these insufferables.

I mentioned that sonar style ping earlier, and another clever aspect of it is the way in which it interacts with Kjartan Sveinsson playing the other notes on the keyboard – there is no real discrepancy between music and sound. This is also something that had unrealised precedent, with another earlier musical memory. One of the first CDs I can remember hearing in any form was a compilation that my mum bought and listened to quite frequently when we moved into a new house, when I was 4. It took me ages to track down exactly which CD it was, but here it is. Pretty nice collection of songs (I had an early infatuation with ‘Love Shack’), but the bizarre thing was my parents continued to play this CD even though it was irretrievably scratched about 2/3 of the way through. Thus, when it got to that point the music would compress until the CD could only issue CHUNKKACHUNKCRUNCH sounds. I was at once in awe of, and terrified of, this sudden flip from music as a delicately crafted sound space to an infernal degradation, which placed the two phenomena in balance in my head – either was just as intriguing as the other. I’m not saying that my mum is a secret genius of the avant-garde, but she may have beaten William Basinski to it without even realising!

With so much reverb in the mix, and the guitar being used in such an unconventional manner, Sigur Ros soften that divide between music and sound. All recorded music is an illusion to some extent, but Sigur Ros grant the impression that this is not music that was made in a studio that was booked out for a certain amount of man hours; rather it is from, and of, the landscape it exists within. I do not want to be one of the legion who have commented wistfully on glaciers and volcanoes without ever having visited Iceland, so I will refrain from the temptation. The way I see it, ‘Svefn-g-englar’ is not a song that makes me want to pick up an instrument and head to Abbey Road in search of fortune. It encourages me to look around at my immediate space, and within myself, in order to delineate the power, beauty, and fear, that resides there. Fear should be emphasised as Sigur Ros’ recent releases have confirmed the dualism between antagonism and harmony that resides at the centre of their music – instead of faeries and elves in a wooded enclave, think mephits and banshees pulling at your limbs in a murky grotto – within Svefn-g-englar, this comes at roughly the 6:10 mark, as an abrupt drum full and chord change lead the song into new territory, before eventually fading out with that enigmatic ‘Tjuuuuuuuu’.

giuk gap credit cia

Map of the SOSUS sensor network, showing how central Iceland was to it, and by extension, the North Atlantic theatre of the Cold War.

Innocence of youth gives way to experience of adulthood, and having had the opportunity to revolve the song in my head over some years has led me to conjecture other possibilities for that one particular sonar inspired sound effect. Iceland had an intriguing role within the Cold War, affiliated with the USA through their use of Keflavik air base (something which led to popular protest from the native population), while maintaining trade and geographical ties with the Soviet Union, whose submarines stalked the Arctic Circle. The USA’s anti-submarine alert system SOSUS was based around that area, anchored between Greenland, Iceland, and the northern British Isles. The blips therefore communicate that sense of emptiness and space I alluded to earlier, but can be seen to do so from a more historically engaged angle than Sigur Ros are ordinarily given credit for. Iceland is not the primitive, folkic, quaint ‘other’ that many reviews paint it as, but a landmass caught in the crosshairs of an insidious and intrusive conflict for much of its recent history. The earthiness of the guitar is geological in scale, standing monumental as those external blips mechanically search for the life that Jonsi breathes into the piece. The land emerges triumphantly from the tension of recent history, standing on its own terms. This is all conjectural on my part, so I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has spent time on the island and would be better qualified to comment on such a matter.

Similarly, I am always interested in hearing stories of people’s own personal revelations into the possibilities of art in any medium, the moment at which it stops becoming one of many peripheral things in your consciousness and becomes the essential. Do get in touch.

Wordsworth’s Apocalypse

1903 walter crane illustrated edition, courtesy of uni of minnesota

This is a version of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, illustrated by Walter Crane in 1903. Notice how the scene has been transformed into something that would not look out of place in Greek myth. Credit: University of Minnesota

A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.

Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:

                                      Liberty must raise

Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;

Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–

Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!

Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire

Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:

Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;

As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!

–All cannot be: the promise is too fair

For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:

Yet not for this will sober reason frown

Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;

She knows that only from high aims ensue

Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.

 Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.

James Gillray - Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

James Gillray – Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.

Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:

Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.

In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’  which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to

elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life

One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.

In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.

Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.

The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence.  At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.

One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.

Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.

Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.

 Postscript, or, what’s the point?

 This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.

 Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.

 

 

 

Line of Duty and the myth of realism

In March, newspapers and websites alike were already falling over themselves to award Line of Duty with the accolade of TV drama of the year. It is a finely crafted show, of that there is no doubt (even if there was gratuitous and confusing plot dumping in the final episode), but the grounds on which it is praised are somewhat awry. The creator, Jed Mercurio, is somewhat culpable of this, as in an interview with The Guardian he described the genesis of his work:

“I got interested in writing about police corruption, it was a different angle, a police version of Bodies: very grown-up, it had mature themes, an antithesis of the escapist cop show. I am a social realist writer. There were sufficient parallels with the NHS I could write about.”

Mercurio may see himself as a social realist writer, but Line of Duty is at its most powerful when it is consciously fantastical, and I don’t think this is any coincidence.

It must be conceded right off the bat that Mercurio has done an excellent job at translating a previously ignored aspect of police life – anti-corruption and the bureaucratic culture of the police post-New Labour – onto the screen, but that is largely the extent to which his ‘social realism’ delves. There is a curious absence of the social, and that is what I understand in the phrase ‘social realism’ – examining characters based upon their socioeconomic circumstances. To some extent Mercurio’s words work against him, because the show works at its best when it is further from such an ideal of realism.

The leading players on the blue side of the line are generally rendered quite well, and without pandering to types. They are conflicted, and frequently misguided when they pursue what they believe to be true justice. So far, so good. However, the series changes tone when it attempts to address the world outside the police station. The criminal underworld in the series is a shadowy realm whose motivations are never brought forward – it is no coincidence that Gates’ house is broken into by masked intruders in series 1, and that the ambush is perpetrated by all-black wearing motorcyclists in series 2.

 

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

 

This does more than perpetuate narrative tension, as it shows the crime originating from the underclass as a strike from the shadows, one which draws power because it is so unexpected and unexplainable, not because the criminal organisations are accountable to any sort of socioeconomic production.  Crime is inevitable, it has no genesis. This is quite unusual, given that Mercurio is so careful to illustrate how the police officers are pressured by factors outside their work to act in the way that they do.

There is, of course, the fact that as a relatively low-budget BBC production, there is only so much time and energy to invest in drawing up the type of finely woven tapestry seen in a series like The Wire. Nevertheless, there are some sinister elements of Line of Duty’s limitations, which suggest there is intent behind the caricaturisation of crime. Namely, crime is seen as one part of a wider umbrella of annoyances in middle-class life, like noisy neighbours, or not being able to afford school fees. The interview with the child Ryan in series 1 does a good job at humanising him, but the impact of his early appearances puts him in close proximity with the demon-child Damien from The Omen, raising the implied question: what if this was your child?

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep - another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep – another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

You can see this in the series 2 sub-plot of Lindsay Denton and her noisy neighbour – the woman’s only purpose in the story is, quite literally, to generate noise. She has no side of the story, meaning that her disturbance of Lindsay is put on a level with the corruption the latter is dealing with. Think back to the robber in series 1 as well, who is accompanied by a motif of loud techno music which acts like a huge flashing banner, shouting “HERE! HERE! THE CRIME IS HERE! ISN’T HE A NAUGHTY BOY?”.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an 'us' and 'them' mentality.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

Crime and loud noises are combined as part of a general background buzz with other annoyances like paperwork. Sometimes moving away from realism really fits the show, as with the absence of geographical specificity which I’ll refer to later, but at other times it makes the show look refracted through a prism. Namely, that society, its constituents and their motivations are not drawn in an inquisitive manner but according to a ‘worst case scenario’ program, simply rehashing what someone may think or worry that the world outside their immediate view is like, instead of depicting it with a sense of investigation. There is less of a feeling that Mercurio has uncovered hidden elements in our society that we need to have brought to our attention, but that our insecurities are, in effect, being pandered to. Sometimes this is a useful narrative tactic, when Line of Duty takes on a decidedly Gothic flavour, drawing on several tropes of that particular genre.

There’s no peace in your own home. Jackie Laverty thought she had it in the first series, before her home was broken into and she was brutally murdered. The two police officers who supervise Denton during her incarceration in series 2 are Gothic fantasies in two ways: one, in their Kafkaesque rigour to a completely banal and emotionless bureaucracy, and two, because they are effectively doubles of one another. They are not designed to be realistic portrayals of police who were tempted on the wrong side of the thin blue line; their distinguishing feature is that they are always presented as a pair, like the eerie twins from The Shining, constantly intimidating the protagonist by outnumbering them.

twinsshining twins via horrorpedia

Such a trope also promotes another Gothic idea: disrupting humanist belief that each human being is fundamentally different by giving two figures that look and behave exactly the same. Likewise, Tommy Hunter is an angry Scotsman – his only defining characteristic is his Scottishness, which makes him louder and brasher, furthering the portrayal of crime as a noise, something which constantly stampedes upon people’s attempts to get on with their lives, instead of something that is accountable to social conditions. A real student of theory could delve here into the effect of having this Scottishness make him part of the general ‘othering’ of the criminal world within the show, but I don’t think it needs pushing that far – simply recognising the stereotypical traits of the character is sufficient.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

The whole estate sub-plot of series 1 is a sequence of ever-descending negatives, where humanity is completely absent: Sarah Hughes in The Guardian describes the overall feel as ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ and she’s certainly on to something. The estate is much more fictionalised than the police station. The estate is a place where crime and evil deeds obviously ensue, whereas the police station at least has the benefit of having each and every motivation and deed interrogated ruthlessly by the programme.  Although Fleming’s undercover work in series 1 was delicately done (and brilliantly subverted in series 2 when Denton called her out on it straight away), Dot Cottan has no such delicacies in his undercover role in AC-12. I understand that Line of Duty has been commissioned for two further series and thus it is perhaps inevitable that it will be explored further, but at the moment Cottan is a ‘Keyser Soze’ figure, a mythical menace within the police’s grasp, one who looks low on the pecking order both in the underworld and the police service but one whose hands remain remarkably clean.

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

Indeed, given the gaps series 2 left, I hope it will be the intertwining of police and criminals which forms the backbone of the next series at least. Taking the first series on their own terms, however, there was very little reference as to why Cottan, the two women in the prison, and the police behind the ambush acted in the way that they did. The fact that they show no remorse is telling; these are not conscience-driven characters in the way that the main characters are, they are devils, who commit evil deeds because that is what they are built for. It’s a circular logic; they’re evil because they’re evil. Again, this is odd when the main characters wrestle with a more 3-dimensional picture of what exactly good and evil mean in modern policing.

Sometimes this fluctuation between realism and Gothic benefits the show: they have been unable to specify where the show is set due to changing filming locations, but this has quite a neat effect of murkying the show’s palette even further – the city in which the show is set does not have a history of particular socioeconomic policy directed to it – it’s a city woven out of nightmares, where each character is trapped resolutely within their unhappiness and surrounded by demons. Line of Duty is weaker when it perpetuates extremely negative reports of society without delving enough beneath to surface to justify the label of ‘social realism’.

I have to ask for feedback on this one; Line of Duty is the only Jed Mercurio series I’ve watched. Anyone who’s watched his other stuff like Bodies and Cardiac Arrest, please leave a comment, I’d like to know how the two compare – does he seem more comfortable writing about the NHS, which he used to work in? Is there the same sense of suspended investigation? Do get in touch.

Thom Yorke is the most cliche-ridden songwriter we currently possess. That’s why he’s so important.

In an interview with HUMO magazine, Thom Yorke described the composition of ‘Fitter Happier’, the sequential and thematic centre of OK Computer, in the following terms:

“I had writer’s block for three months. In that period I could only make lists of words. It took me a long way to figure out that the only way I could translate my thoughts was with these lists”

Yet ‘Fitter Happier’ is not eccentric in its lyrical style, particularly for post-2000 Radiohead songs. Indeed, it seems as if Yorke has adapted this style of writing in his later career to slightly different, yet complementary circumstances. Much of his recent work reads as long ‘lists’ of idioms, clichés and generally familiar phrases. Pay particular attention in the quotation above to the two implications of the adverb ‘only’: it means that he realised he should stop thinking about songwriting as an introspective, cohesive manner in favour of a more fragmented approach, but also that the way in which language has been used from the 1990s onwards means that writing in such a manner is inevitable, the true way of marrying form with content in a new age. Yorke wonderfully channels the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer but allowing all of the vastness of data to penetrate through the stereo. Yet his use of cliché as a device is often missed or misunderstood (see the Neil McCormick review below). There is scope to examine it from the political angle, and utilise the agitations he has brought to light in interviews, but I am more interested in what it says on a more purely linguistic level, about how language is constructed and disseminated between people. Clearly there is an overlap here, and indeed political themes are unavoidable given the subject matter of Radiohead’s music. Nevertheless, I hope that this encourages a more appreciative look at lyrics which have been unfairly dismissed.

Bold = in Oxford idiom dictionary

Italics = other phrase of note

Pablo Honey  (2)

Pablo Honey + Drill + Itch

The Bends (3) The Bends + My Iron Lung OK Computer (5 + 3, not including Fitter Happier) OK Computer + No Surprises/Running From Demons + Airbag/How Am I Driving? Kid A/Amnesiac  (6 + 8)  29 songs Kid A + Amnesiac + I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings Hail to the Thief (13) Hail to the Thief + COM LAG (2plus2isfive)
Blow Out – “all wrapped up in cotton wool”

 Inside My Head – “hold my peace

Planet Telex – “dry as a bone”

The Bends – “blow me sky high”

“High and Dry”

Paranoid Android – “off with his head” + “first against the wall”

Subterranean Homesick Alien – “folks back home”

Exit Music – “all hell breaks loose”

Electioneering – “I trust I can rely on your vote”

“Climbing Up The Walls”

Lucky – “I’m on a roll”

Pearly

In Limbo – “you’re living in a fantasy world” + “I’m lost at sea”

Idioteque – “women and children first” + “take the money and run”

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”

“Knives Out”

Like Spinning Plates“feed me to the lions”  + “cloud cuckoo land”

Life In A Glasshouse – “chew the fat”

You and Whose Army?”

Kinetic “you’re being took for a ride

Trans-Atlantic Drawl – “light at the end of the tunnel

Cuttooth – “tanks roll into town

2+2=5 – “put the world to rights”

The Gloaming – “genie let out of the bottle, it is now the witching hour”

Go to Sleep – “over my dead body”

Backdrifts – “damaged goods

There There – “accidents waiting to happen”

I Will – “white elephants” + “sitting ducks”

Myxomatosis – “ate me up for breakfast”

A Wolf At The Door – “take it with a pinch of salt”

A Punchup At A Wedding – “bull in a china shop” + “pot will call the kettle black” + “piss on our parade

I Am a Wicked Child – “straight and narrow

The Eraser (6 + 1) The Eraser + Spitting Feathers In Rainbows (9 + 4) In Rainbows (2CD version) + ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ + Harry Patch (In Memory Of) + ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’ The King Of Limbs (10 + 2)  The King Of Limbs + songs debuted since then Amok (3 + 4) Amok
Analyse – “self-fulfilling prophecy

Black Swan – “blind spot” + “dead horse”

Harrowdown Hill – “walk the plank”

Drunkk Machine – “spitting feathers” + “speaking in tongues” + “splitting hairs”

15 Step – “eyes off the ball” + “cat got your tongue”

All I Need – “waiting in the wings”

Faust Arp – “rise and shine” + “elephant in the room”

“House of Cards”

Jigsaw Falling Into Place – “wound up like a spring”

Videotape – “the pearly gates”

 Down is the New Up – “what’s up buttercup” + “you’re so last week” + “chink in your armour

Last Flowers – “tread on your toes

Up on the Ladder – “puppet on the strings

Little by little, by hook or by crook”

“Give up the Ghost” + “had my fill

Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Lotus Flower – “while the cat is away” + “kick the habit

The Butcher – “spare the gory details

The Daily Mail – “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” + “pig’s ear”

I Froze Up – “like lambs to the slaughter”

 Open the Floodgates

Default – “will is strong, but the flesh is weak” + “slipped my mind” + “made my bed I’ll lie in it

Ingenue – “know like the back of your hand” + “fools rushing in

“Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Amok – “penny for your thoughts”

graph 0

graph 1

I’ve attempted to provide some sort of statistical basis upon which to work from. I went through the corpus of lyrics of Radiohead, Atoms For Peace and his solo releases, finding phrases that were in The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto. Graph A demonstrates how idioms and ‘extras’ have formed the backbone of Yorke’s lyrics since Kid A/Amnesiac, with slight dips for The Eraser and Amok because there is simply less material. Graph B shows a more accurate breakdown as an average is calculated based upon the number of idioms and ‘extras’ added together and divided by the total number of songs from that particular chapter of the band’s career. My definition of ‘extras’ is of course subjective, but I’ve tried to include all the phrases which strike me as being employed because of their familiarity, rather than their originality. As the table shows, very frequently Yorke employs a metaphor not because it is a new, powerful way of perceiving a particular thing, but because it is a metaphor that now lacks imaginative penetration. It should also be noted that I tried to only count idioms that were employed verbatim, so as an example I didn’t include the line ‘Your ears should be burning’ from ‘House of Cards’ because I felt that there was enough originality in the twist of phrasing. The statistical trend to be observed is a steady growth until OK Computer, where by his own admission Yorke’s lyrics became less introspective and more cryptically worldly, taking up the perspective of “taking Polaroids of things moving around [him] too fast”, with another growth up to Hail to the Thief, and then re-emerging even more prominently in his more recent work.

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

Yorke’s words underscore his divergence from some of his songwriting predecessors; namely Bono, Morrissey and Michael Stipe. Even when Bono (Zooropa) and Stipe (Up) updated their style to fit similar themes explored by Yorke from OK Computer onwards, they are still using the technique of putting their own unique stamp on the language – as a very brief exercise, compare lines like ‘My night is coloured headache grey’ (R.E.M – Daysleeper) or ‘Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down‘ (U2 – Stay (Faraway, So Close!)) in how they depict modern life and overwork compared with Radiohead’s ‘Kinetic’, which puts forward snatches of second-hand language like ‘you’re being took for a ride’ and ‘don’t fall asleep at the wheel’. Stipe and Bono remain as Jeremiahs in the wilderness, while Yorke is more willing to embody the persona of the disoriented participant. There is a subtextual point to develop here too, as using such a device is not only artistic but also allows Yorke to sidestep the pressures of being valorised as a generational voice, with an audience of impressionable minds hanging off an artist’s every word, particularly given the repetitious overexposure through interviews et al demonstrated in Meeting People is Easy. Yorke is much more multifaceted in his approach, as his words are delivered in a disoriented manner, with no real indication of where they emerge from and how much the singer is a mere vessel; invisible speech marks float around, resisting a distinctly first-person interpretation. Yorke feels he cannot emancipate his subjectivity and is therefore constantly trying to navigate out of his complicity while persistently being trapped by language. A helpful visual corollary is the video to ‘There There’: the golden boots that promise escape contrive to leave him trapped. Broken branches trip him as he speaks.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The gradual shift from introspective and personal lyrics to more abstract and generalised compositions was embodied in the method he used in the Kid A/Amnesiac period; the ‘cut-up’ style, whereby Yorke would compose lyrics by selecting random phrases from a hat. It is interesting that while such a method was perhaps most famously employed by the Dada artists in the early 20th century in order to strike out against bourgeois rationality (which led the Western world to World War One), Yorke’s use of the device is more of a belated integration into a system which favours the soundbite (which helps palliate war, particularly Iraq).  Language, particularly in the world of political ‘spin’, no longer follows a referential function. Instead, language is manipulated, usually to dampen any emotional responses to an event. Yorke commented on the lyrical style of Hail to the Thief in a Rolling Stone interview:

“When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [America’s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back”

When the literal meanings of idioms are lost, they become ripe for appropriation. Yorke’s personal burglary is not entirely successful, however – it’s rare he makes a clean getaway. The brilliant line ‘we are accidents waiting to happen’ in ‘There There’ could be a celebration of spontaneity or inevitability, depending on whether ‘accident’ or ‘happen’ is stressed. The fact that ‘waiting’ is repeated twice in the song inclines me to the latter. Likewise, the cry of ‘over my dead body’ in ‘Go to Sleep’ is alternately defiant and prostrate.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising 'Kleine Dada Soiree' in 1922.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising ‘Kleine Dada Soiree’ in 1922.

kid a frozzen

From one of Radiohead’s old sites, a page called ‘FroZZen’ – contains lyrics from Kid A, Knives Out, and others. You can almost hear the fury of letters being typed on the keyboard, drowning out the possibility of sending a coherent message. Credit: Radiohead.

Nevertheless, the continuity of this device in his lyrics has a marked social connotation as well, one which has become increasingly relevant following the rise of social media, and helps explain why the device re-emerges following the Orwellian paranoia of the Bush/Blair years. The coalescence of technology with social networks has cultivated new forms of communication which compel semantic near-misses, decontextualisation, and constraint. Character limits facilitate an appeal to common wisdom, often in the form of idiomatic phrases, as the most persuasive form of argument. There is a corollary here with what John Fuller described as the rush to wit in the English sonnet: the presence of a rhyming couplet which closes the poem encourages a summarising epigram within a 14 line space that stands on its own as an example of insight and decorum. The fact that a sonnet consists of 14 lines, and that Twitter’s character limit is 140, has always struck me as an eerie parallel. As such, the inherent limit of the medium requires using language with a summarising function, as well as a referential one. Idioms are thus extremely propitious, because they appear to grant instant authority, utilising a familiarity embedded within the language which effectively draws upon more than just the characters of the immediate tweet. The tonal ambiguity of online messaging similarly facilitates idioms, as stock phrases are used like a safety mechanism, to ensure that meaning can be transmitted without the paralanguage of face-to-face conversation.

Twitter search for 'made my bed, I'll lie in it' - line in 'Default', by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ – line in ‘Default’, by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for 'lunatics taken asylum', from 'The Daily Mail' by Radiohead.

Twitter search for ‘lunatics taken asylum’, from ‘The Daily Mail’ by Radiohead.

The pictures I’ve attached to this piece demonstrate this – look at the way in which the same phrase of ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ is applied to a number of different circumstances, like a funnel through which thoughts are directed to the same common end point. The fact that ‘The Daily Mail’ is one of the biggest culprits is strong evidence that Yorke’s lexicon is evolving with the times, rather than ossifying with age as Neil McCormick suggested in the Telegraph when he reviewed Amok:

“Yorke seems to have become increasingly conflicted about the very idea of communication, his fondness for cliché indicating a tendency towards self-sabotage.”

The use of cliché in ‘The Daily Mail’ is a riffing exchange with the acute mixture of colloquialism and Daily Hate espoused by the newspaper, drawing up panic and condemnation in equal measure by using language that is malleable because it has been shorn of context while appearing conversational. Hence, Yorke’s lyric ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ on one level describes the newspaper and culture of the British press in general; that newspapers are now vehicles to transmit impulsive, emotive messages of political contingency that are best equated with lunacy. And yet the only language Yorke is capable of using is that which could be taken from a headline of the newspaper, which makes the pun on ‘asylum’ so telling, given the paper’s denigration of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Headlines and slogans are, of course, another aspect of language which have become more prevalent with the diffusion of mass media; ostensibly neutral but in many cases coded to suit a particular agenda.

You don't tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring 'NO ASYLUM SEEKERS', as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

You don’t tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring ‘NO ASYLUM SEEKERS’, as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

The overall fairy tale feel of Hail to the Thief, with recurrent images of folk creatures (wolves, vampires, rabbits) and story-telling frames like lullabies and bedtime stories, represents another dimension to the Yorkean cliché: language as inheritance. That is, soundbites that are experienced at an early and susceptible age, to the extent that they become part of a linguistic backdrop without ever really being examined; the curious phenomenon where as a child you pick up such constructions from the people around you and use them without being fully aware of their meaning. The interweaving themes of children’s stories act as a vehicle for trying to explore alternative spaces to this inevitable inheritance, emphasising the mental capacity of the listener, rather than becoming passive to the manipulation of language. Children’s stories represent the unique imagination of the child and ability to free the imagination from the constraints of worldly thought and language that idioms represent; a long-exhausted metaphor. In researching this, I read an article by M. Chiara Levorato about an experiment in the childhood acquisition of idioms. In one experiment they tested children 10 years of age (younger children generated different results), with an exercise where they had a choice of 3 answers in order to fulfil the global coherence of a text; one answer was idiomatic (e.g. break the…ice), another was literal (break the…crayon), while a final answer was figurative, but not related to the idiom (break the…fear, when translated from Italian, the language the study was conducted in). The results showed that most of the children actually plumped for the last option, demonstrating that acquiescence into idioms involves a suspension of some original insight into language as it becomes ‘conventionalised’.

Think about how often conversations halt at the apparent insight of an idiom which is never critically examined, where the semantic sense of the idiom has become irrelevant. I’m guilty of this all the time – a particular favourite is using ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ as justification for anything (usually helping myself to a lot of finger food), ending a debate about the merits of performing a particular action with a well-timed idiom. There are some situations in which employing such an idiom is the best option for the conversation, but is often like a termination of internal logic, as these disembodied ghosts of language don’t really connote anything, and yet they appear to represent some great inherited wisdom from the past. This gives a more insidious angle to the albums produced in the wake of all of the band’s members having children; not just a sense of emerging into a politically corrupt world, but also one in which stock phrases dictate a particular world view. The imagery of storytelling and imaginative escape form a tense opposition to this throughout, which is what makes Hail to the Thief an excellent and underrated album within their oeuvre. The band at once tries to build a cocoon from the world narratives being constructed around them with the emergent War on Terror, trying to retain some sense of imaginative autonomy, while being forced to gaze at the newspaper walls within.

Since ‘Fitter Happier’, Thom Yorke’s lyrics have been peppered with idiomatic phrases and cliché. Yorke’s persona is of an individual whose attempts to carve their own niche in language are mollified by the presence of language as a series of recurrent images and ideas which communicate no particular meaning other than their vacuous second-handedness. This semantic gap strikes a chord with the body of their work as a whole, as Radiohead have, for the last two decades, been at the vanguard of music in trying to identify where the individual ends and the system begins. Thom Yorke presents a speaker who has enough know-how to question the system he is a part of, while being unable to vocalise it in anything other than re-hashed terms.