The Evolution and Stasis of Radiohead

Sad people tend to remain sad. Angry people tend to remain angry. Ignorant people ignorant. Some of the greater triumphs in life, of course, are when people — in decades-long spans, in minutes of blistering epiphany — manage to find ways, strategies, to transcend their original personality blueprints. It’s not they are no longer their original trait, but experience has provided them with a frame of reference to combat the extremity to which they tend — the hole they inhabit. Perhaps it’s a beloved husband or wife that succeeds in being and acting a different way, equally effective, equally vital. Maybe one of their more loose-lipped friends provides them with a hint (“quit bein’ a dick!”). Or maybe it’s just the universe, faint, vast, impossible to comprehend in whole, that’s telling them it’s time to be different; it’s time to try to be different.

And so the person, like a basketball player adding tools to their game, slowly changes over time. The sad person learns to tinge their sadness with irony. The angry person learns how to gently back off, to breathe, to accept the things they can’t change. The ignorant person learns what and what not to post on Facebook and Instagram.

But deep down, they still largely hold on to their original trait. “I don’t think that we ever change,” said Jason Segel in a biopic released last summer about the late David Foster Wallace: an earnest, experience-bred — if not dark — rebuke to permanent, transformational change. Perhaps it is an important, honest thing that they do.

In August 2015, Thom Yorke and his partner Rachel Owen split after having been together twenty-three years; an interesting time frame for Radiohead, who twenty-three years ago released their first major studio album, Pablo Honey, a sappy, pop-laden — occasionally heartfelt — commercial hit about not wanting to conform on the one hand and the misery that comes with not being desired — with being alone — on the other; a tension that has squeaked and screamed and hid in Radiohead’s music ever since (the only difference being how good they have gotten at defining it).

Two Fridays ago, two days before the band released their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed short was posted on their Facebook page. The short featured the second released single on their album, “Daydreaming,” as well as a video of Thom walking around companionless — through houses, Laundromats, school hallways, beaches, mountains. In the video, it seems — forward-moving, panoramic in gaze — that he is quietly and patiently looking for someone (it is clear too that there’s no need mentioning who that person is; just go to Google News). Through his old, gray-bearded, fine-skinned face, he smiles at people, laughs to himself, keeps up a look of general emotionless, emptiness. After all, he is now alone. And while the sentiments bring us back to songs like “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” “Let Down,” and “How to Disappear Completely” — all sad, all lonely, all generous — the feeling of youthful urgency that once defined Radiohead records is no longer there. That facet of the band’s personality has changed, if not others. Already a decade into middle age, they are too old for that (their new band cover photo is a gorgeous testament to that sense of oldness). At a certain point, things just don’t happen very quickly anymore. Relationships last twenty-three years, rather than for college or the length of a job stint. Personal demons and climate change are not solved overnight.

Indeed, it is the sound of them embracing change while also paying heed to things that don’t. And it is why we continue to deeply appreciate Radiohead. For we believe that their sadness — unlike the sadness of a generation of emo stars that took their cues from OK Computer — is one of truth and depth. We trust them for not abandoning all of us working, not famous people who oftentimes find ourselves sad as well. And while good indie bands today like Tame Impala make fun, improved versions of Daft Punk albums, whenever Radiohead come back around for their next album (and these days, their breaks seems longer), we forget why they’re irreplaceable.

And it seems like twenty-three years in, regardless of the times, and regardless of the important people that enter into and out of these band members’ lives, their music will always contain a deep level of dignity — faithfulness to the original blueprint as well as recognition of how the parameters of the mind change. For decades, the band has sought to discover, in a world of porous borders and quick travel, through their own technologically warped and twisted albums, who they really are. They still have a ways to go. But in the way they wield their instruments these days — comfortably, peacefully (angerlessly), masterfully — they appear closer than ever to that mystery.