Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 6a — THE ERASER

Continued from here:

It is early summer 2006.

I am walking down a road on San Juan Island, the main island in the group named after it, located near Vancouver Island. It is one of the most isolated parts of America (both the concept and the nation-state), and is a testimony to the weirdness of humanity as it grapples with geography. Reason being is it is the site of the best conflict ever fought anywhere, the Pig War, precisely because the only thing that suffered and died was a pig, which might well have met its fate anyway. Ultimately a bunch of Germans studied the area and said that America got this chunk of islands instead of Canada, but Canada had its own batch, plus the really big one.

I am here visiting my aunt and uncle, who first fell in love with the islands almost a quarter century back. They now spend summer up here in a fine vacation cabin that’s really a lovely miniature house, with a guest house at that. It is part of a trip I am taking, my annual summer break somewhere. I usually alternate between going to Europe and going somewhere else, but due to keeping an eye on my budget and just for the heck of it, I have taking a train trip up and down the Pacific Coast region — very rarely on the coast itself, but the train lines don’t run there much.

Besides stopping in at favorite spots like Portland and Seattle, I’ve also visited Vancouver for the first time, and found it to be as great as has so often been recommended. It’s also where I see NoMeansNo at long last — a wonderful, incredibly underrated band, they still bring it and then some live after their own quarter century together, and in front of a not-hometown-but-not-far-away crowd it’s a total treat. In Seattle itself I’ve also seen Sonic Youth headline their own fantastic show; that they are otherwise opening for Pearl Jam that summer makes seeing this one-off date all the more enjoyable.

By any measure it’s been a wonderful trip — some train delays, but I was in no absolute rush on either end of the trip (rather happily, as it proves given said delays); otherwise to see the beauty of places in California and Oregon that I’ve never been near was reason enough to go. Having breakfast passing by Mt. Shasta, descending the upper reaches of the Willamette Valley as the sun starts to set, these are moments to treasure. Then there’s the San Juans — one of the most beautiful, serene and wonderful places to be in summer, anywhere. Brian’s come along for the trip as well and mentions how it strikes him the same way New Zealand did on his own trip there recently, that same blend of sea, sky and land.

Having visited an open-air sculpture park near Roche Harbor, we are ambling back towards where my aunt and uncle live — it’s an easy distance, the evening is fantastic and I’m, quite literally, enjoying the silence (this is some of the most noise-free land I’ve ever been to, and the experience is almost shocking). At the same time, there’s one very very tiny thing that otherwise troubles this fairly blissful moment.

If only they had scheduled it a couple of weeks earlier or later. If only. It was announced after I’d already made my plans and bought my tickets here, there’s no reason or way to switch it around, what’s the point? That would be kinda ridiculous. And I shouldn’t be jealous of my friends who are going, a couple of them have never seen them and I’ve seen them now five times over the years. They’ll be back at some point. Still, new songs and all…and all those fantastic shows in the past. Nah, can’t obsess over this, it’d be pointless…and yet.

It’s the measure of how content one is with life otherwise that what otherwise is a tiny thing becomes a blot one comes back to. And at points during the trip it does, not often, but a couple of times like now. There it is, it can’t be helped — Radiohead are back on tour, and for the first time in almost a decade, I’m going to miss their LA date. Dang.

I continue down the road as does Brian, each mostly lost in our own thoughts. Towards the end of the road we meet some llamas. (The alpacas are across the way.)

Backtracking:

2006 is a good year. A great one, really. There are things that still concern me on a couple of fronts and I do have those black moments every so often now, which combined with a waspish snippishness at points is not something I’m happy about. I’m aware of that more without always dwelling on it, though, and I’ve been improving what I can do at work as well as in other areas as well, not least of which is the personal. I’ve worked to improve my diet and will soon begin participation in a community-supported agriculture project via the Avanti Cafe and South Coast Farms, two of the best things about Orange County life. A raise at work, while part of an overall negotiation by my union to improve things with the general lot of my colleagues, is of course nothing to sneeze at. Friends remain a source of strength, my family are as well as ever.

On the musical front, I’ve finally been to the EMP Pop Music conference for the first time, met many familiar folks as well as seeing old friends and acquaintances once more, and generally found a new buzz for music, or rather had it once again resparked as has been the case over the past couple of years. I’ve been asked to participate in and have already submitted my essay for Marooned. Longterm plans are starting to take some more shape, including the creation of this blog, though that is still some distance off. Attending Terrastock 6 was a trip and a half, as was catching up with yet more people and meeting new ones as well. At one point over dinner a writer says something to me that leaves me slackjawed — namely, that apparently my work was what inspired him to start writing. I barely get out my profound thanks, my head in a whirl. A musician friend sitting at the table who has doubtless heard the equivalent over the years from other performers laughs gently and says, “Ned, you need to learn how to take a compliment.” I still find that a bit hard.

Meantime, there’s this Radiohead tour that’s announced…which I have to miss. Again, dang. I really haven’t listened to them at all over this time, they’re like many other bands ingrained into my psyche, not something I have to go back to time and again. My musical tastes in general have gently but not universally shifted — pop in general is a parallel universe that I observe as I move alongside it, dipping in and out as I choose and realizing that I don’t need to hear many songs more than a couple of times to enjoy them and easily call them to mind. (My cockeyed theory in part is that the process of making something so catchy so immediately — whether one loves it or not — is a result of the microfocus that the Net and cellphone/ringtone culture has brought to the charts. If it can’t hook in immediately, it will be ignored.) The amount of music out there to listen to — not to mention all the other things that take up my life and time outside of the social aspects, whether it’s books or movies or developing my cooking skills or whatever else it might be — means I am picking and choosing my battles carefully, though not without plenty of snark and snap judgments along the way. (On this front I am at least consistent.)

Then all of a sudden there’s a mention of a Thom Yorke solo album.

It’s later in 2006 and I’m in my favorite local coffee place, the Gypsy Den. I hear Thom Yorke’s voice and frown a bit.

“This isn’t a Radiohead song…oh right, it must be from the solo album. I need to finally listen to that.”

Like a lot of music — a LOT of music — it’s something I have around which I haven’t listened to yet after some time. This may seem odd, but it grows out of two things.

First is habit. Ever since my CD mania began in earnest in college, I’d always found there were discs I liked to set aside which, I knew, I would love. I’d only heard a song or two, maybe, but it was enough for me to guess that I’d really like the album when I finally gave it a full listen. These became my ‘rainy day’ discs, as I called them — something that would be around when the mood finally struck me, something that didn’t need to be heard right that second, but would be something best appreciated when I felt the impulse. I ended up taking the same stance with many other things — books, DVDs and so forth. In a way, I think this is an extension of a belief that there’s always time to catch up with many things, even as new discoveries are made — why not? Sometimes the betting is wrong on this front — turns out the stuff I had heard beforehand was the only thing worth it on the album, say — but more often than not it turns out to be just right.

Second, as mentioned before, is volume. The sheer *amount* of music. The sheer amount of everything. The floodgates, having opened, cannot be closed. Cultural product and the time able to be spent with it — unless one wishes to become a hermit and never sleep or do anything but try and take it all in — is available now in endless amounts for those with the access and ability (something that can’t be underlined enough, of course — the endless amounts and the time to absorb even part of them are conditioned on having the money, the space, the commitment to be able to do so; what to one person is just a natural state of things is to another an impossible and perhaps even dangerous luxury). And as a semi-professional writer — not full time, but with an increasing amount of commitments that will continue to grow — time spent doing one’s work on that front means less time to simply relax and listen (or whatever).

And so, much as I love Radiohead in general, much as I know I will almost certainly enjoy The Eraser, I still haven’t heard it yet at this point. I know I’ll get around to it, and eventually do. It is, of course, wonderful.

It’s not Radiohead. No more than Johnny Greenwood’s Bodysong is. But it is by default rather close to it.

In these posts of mine I’ve mentioned Thom Yorke far more often than any other member. Phil Selway a few times, the Greenwoods a couple of times each, Ed O’Brien not at all (and very unfairly too — he is the harmony singer live and likely in studio more often than not, as well as being an excellent guitarist in general). This is the slight danger of assuming everything centers around the lead singer in a group — not always the case by any means, though it is a privileged position in how a ‘band’ has been conceived and sold in terms of image over the years. Certainly there are those acts that are essentially solo performers with a rotating backup, but just as often a band can see the lead singer as little more than a voice to be exchanged as needed.

The exact dynamic of how Radiohead works in making their music has been discussed in many different ways, often by the band itself (another thing I’ve said little about in these posts: how they use their website as a core part of their identity, via what is shared and what is not — they are one of the most adept bands out there on this front, and their transition into the Net age still seems astonishingly effortless). It’s not something I overly think about, to be honest, it’s just there. But hearing The Eraser does provide a sense of the difference, in that it’s keyboards and beats over guitars — itself a shift, since Yorke live most often performers with guitars, though he does regularly take turns at piano. As a result, the big missing element, those chunky, spindly, snarling, aggressive/aggressively sculpted guitars, feel not so much absent as held back, lurking in the background but never needing to be used. (It’s not that there’s no guitar at all — “Black Swan,” for instance, or “Harrowdown Hill,” one of the singles and possibly my favorite song on the album — but it’s always used in a very, very understated way.)

It’s a bit simplistic to say that The Eraser therefore equals electronic Radiohead, but inevitably there’s crossover. The nervous glitch-beats combined with swooping keen of Yorke’s voice on a song like “The Clock” inevitably suggests songs like “Packt Like Sardines…” or “The Gloaming,” for instance, and plenty of other comparison points can be made. As such it does feel like a stand-in for the ‘real’ thing. But the differences are there, sometimes subtly so — thus, on that song, Yorke’s harmonies don’t quite sound like anything he’s done quite yet before, especially on the darker-toned wordless breaks, which if anything made me think, at least at a couple of points, of David Gahan’s similar moments on “Barrel of a Gun.”

The Eraser similarly has a bit of a dual identity — its own thing, but one that throws the band into sharp relief. It makes clear that the sound of the band really is something that will never (should never?) fully ‘evolve’ past the straight-up rock band it started out as, that ‘progression,’ as a word often bandied around, is something that does not automatically mean rejection, nor should it. It therefore then allows The Eraser to again stand out more clearly, a handy feedback loop that benefits all. Of course, if one is simply not taken by the combination to start with — Yorke’s singing, the use of electronics as the basis of a song (still — STILL — a point of resistance in some corners, much to my eternal frustration, though the strawman seems to be dying off bit by bit) — then The Eraser would never appeal. Works for me, though.

One final point, and another point not addressed in these posts until now — the artwork. Stanley Donwood, who studied art with Yorke in college and is as much a key member of the Radiohead juggernaut as its management team or Nigel Godrich (who again does the honors here, and who gets a co-arranging credit), has helped oversee the band’s general image as much as anyone else, both on the sleeves of releases and through the website, not to mention merchandising, web films — the list continues. His woodcut art to address the album, London Views, is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen on any release, as well as one of the darkest — a figure is seen with his hand out against a massive flood and storm that has washed away London. Iconic buildings are seen in a state of collapse and destruction, while only a couple of living things — one a tiny rat — bob about in the waters.

What’s interesting about the figure is that it’s not exactly clear what he’s trying to do — according to Wikipedia’s explanation, citing a Yorke interview from the time of the album’s release, he is resisting the flood, trying to halt it in imitation of the story of King Canute. It’s a tale of stern but presumably pointless resistance, of how this flood — metaphoric in whatever sense one wants (one song title: “And It Rained All Night”) — is the Eraser. But for myself, I always saw it as the opposite — that the figure is in fact causing the flood, that the water is flowing from his hands, that he in fact is the Eraser. This said, the crests of the waves in the drawing do generally indicate that the water flows towards him and not away, so it’s not as ambiguous as all that. But it’s just ambiguous enough, and I like that it is.

Above all else the album’s restraint, combined with this imagery of the end, makes me think, just, of Young Marble Giants‘ peerless Colossal Youth — or maybe more appropriately, “Final Day.” If the destruction and end of it all coolly conveyed in that song is nuclear rather than environmental, it’s no less affecting in its careful balance.

A lovely album. One I’ve underrated.

It is the last day of September 2007 and I’m idly checking I Love Music and I see a new thread has been created.

“‘Radiohead — In Rainbows‘ — I don’t get it.”

And I click on it.

Thank you YouTube — and thank you all, everyone who’s been reading along with this kinda crazy project, which I’m quite happy to finish and move on from. Right now I’m just content to wait on the new album and think about it as I do; thoughts will be posted here at my leisure. If you’d like to check out some YouTube footage of songs that will be on the new album, The Playlist’s entry will be of interest. Yorke of course did not tour for The Eraser specifically but there are a couple of video clips of interest:

“Analyse” at the Mercury Awards:

“The Clock” on Jools Holland:

Interview on The Eraser and Radiohead

Another interview: