Saturday, May 03, 2008

Musical Nuance, Part II: Radiohead's "How To Disappear Completely"

(Part I: Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean.")

I'm a generally happy person, and I've rarely used VB to delve into downers, but I've been meaning for months to blog about the brilliance of Radiohead's "How To Disappear Completely."

The fall of 2000 through the summer of 2002 were the roughest in my very fortunate life. In my regular album rotation was Radiohead's "Kid A," one that's still difficult for me to listen to without reliving the emotions I was feeling at the time.

The most cathartic and wrenching track from this album, "How To Disappear Completely," is a haunting six-minute anthem of loneliness, whose refrain of "I'm Not Here/This Isn't Happening" broods among a sullen, meandering baseline and dissonant strings.

Shortly after the five-minute mark, when the string section clashes in chaotic cacophony as Thom Yorke's falsetto repeatedly drops from A to F#. The strings are the musical equivalent of shrieking Valkyries or, to use another Scandinavian metaphor, Edvard Munch's "The Scream."

But just when the stringed siren reaches the peak of crescendo, Thom Yorke's vocal drops from the high A to resolve on G#, cuing the suddenly quiet strings to ascend and swell with heartbreaking harmonies; the moment showers me with goosebumps and often blurs my vision with its beauty. The strings and Yorke all but drop out of the mix for the last 20 seconds of the song, letting the guitars and drums finish the song with aching simplicity.

That moment of clarity after chaos is one of the reasons I find "How To Disappear Completely" so beautiful. The overwhelming sadness (the clashing string section) suddenly makes sense (harmony) and turns into a thing of beauty, bringing brutal closure -- but closure nonetheless.

Here's an unofficial corresponding music video that a YouTube user created. The Munchian strings start at around the 5:05 mark and their suddenly harmonic swell starts at 5:23:


Anonymous said...

although the vocals are actually decipherable in this song, i feel radiohead tunes are that much more powerful when accompanied by the lyrics (see below).

you going to all points west festival? at first i wasn't going to shell out the $90, but then i saw a video of the national anthem from the current tour and INSTANTLY changed my mind. here's the video:

That there
Thats not me
I go
Where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the liffey
Im not here
This isnt happening
Im not here
Im not here

In a little while
Ill be gone
The moments already passed
Yeah its gone
And Im not here
This isnt happening
Im not here
Im not here

Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes
Im not here
This isnt happening
Im not here
Im not here