With the debut of the bands newest album, A Moon Shaped Pool released to rave reviews from both fans and critics, Thom Yorke has, once again, confirmed his place in music history as one of the most innovative artists ever to record a track — a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that few critics claim to fully understand what the hell is going on in the album.
SPIN’s glowing review said the whole of A Moon Shaped Pool drew effortlessly on Yorke’s past and “emerges as a considered, filigreed, album-length sigh — a earnestly human sigh, a distinctly fortysomething sigh, with all the fears, trials, and exhaustions that middle age can accrue.” Of course, the magazine opened their review by admitting the album was pretty “confusing”.
It’s been the same across the industry; listeners have dubbed Radiohead’s new album brilliant, but difficult. It’s a complimentary critique that’s followed Yorke throughout his career, making him a figurehead for modern musical academics. His entire discography seems to say, Art doesn’t need to be easy to be worthwhile.
It’s Yorke’s commitment to art on his terms that draws to mind the career of another misunderstood titan in his genre: James Joyce, the Irishman who elevated everyday life to a hypnotic dream state that made even bath-time monumental. Both men spent — in Yorke’s case, still spending — their lives in a desperate search for something original, for something the world had never seen, and both men accomplished their goals with aplomb.
They Broke On the Scene As Brilliant, But Relatable
Published in 1914, James Joyce’s Dubliners was the writer’s debut work, a collection of short stories about the various inhabitants of Joyce’s hometown. While the novel certainly contained traces of Joyce’s budding genius, it was an accessible, yet starkly realistic look at Dubliners, from childhood all the way to the grave.
The loosely connected tales were, at once, a cohesive expression of Joyce’s philosophy, that one moment can derail an entire lifetime. That heady idea was wrapped in an easily digestible collection of tales that read kind of like a literary version of The Wire, but with fewer drugs and less violence (but just as much intrigue).
Let’s flash forward almost eight decades to 1993 and the release of Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, a swaggering, brash, brilliant entrance into the music scene. However unique the band’s sound was at that point, Pablo Honey was still a commercial hit because, as Rolling Stone put it, “their solid melodies and sing-along choruses resonate pop appeal.”
Joyce, in his way, proved that he was capable of delivering something new that was still deeply rooted in the literary conventions of the time. Yorke and Radiohead, meanwhile, accomplished the same feat with Pablo Honey. So, after proving they were as good as their contemporaries, it was time to get experimental.
Both Are Obsessed With Their Creative Process
Both Yorke and Joyce have wildly different takes on what “experimental” means, but both artists drew creativity from their own creative process.
After Joyce found acclaim after publishing Dubliners, he followed it up two years later by, you know, inventing a brand new literary technique: stream of consciousness, in which he attempted to put into words the tidal wave of thoughts and emotions that make up every person’s moment-to-moment mental existence. The showcase for this literary revolution was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a deeply personal tale of a young Irish kid who hates his Dad and just wants to escape his home so he can get his art on.
It’s a weirdly meta story that uses Joyce’s stream of consciousness device to detail both his own tormented upbringing alongside the actual origin of the literary device. On top of that, there’s a shitload of old school academic references that require a doctorate in the Classics to properly absorb.
Yet, the appeal of Portrait was immediately grabbed by academics of the day. H.G. Wells wrote of the book, “It is a mosaic of jagged fragments that does altogether render with extreme completeness the growth of a rather secretive, imaginative boy in Dublin.”
For proof of the same in Thom Yorke’s career, we can look to the first two releases from A Moon Shaped Pool, “Burn the Witch and “Daydreaming. “Burn the Witch” has already been mired in comparisons to the current refugee crisis, which may be apt.
However, one can’t discount the fact the “Burn the Witch” seriously predates that crisis. The lyrics tell a more intimate tale. The refrain, “Burn the Witch” could just as easily be about Yorke himself, being a creative person in an uncreative world. Keep in mind that in the video, it’s the outsider who ends up torched by the locals. That could apply to refugees (and it probably does), but given Yorke’s career arc, it’s also not unreasonable to think that the song is personal.
And, if “Daydreaming” isn’t about what it’s like to be a slave to the creative process, I’ll eat my hat. Here’s the solemn video directed by P.T. Anderson, starring a wandering Thom Yorke:
The video and the song are working in conjunction. Yorke wanders through a series of doors leading to an unpredictable labyrinth of everyday people and places, singing, “Daydreamers/ They never learn” and proclaiming that he is “Happy to serve” before the ethereal Yorke wanders a sprawling mountain landscape before winding down with a backwards voice repeating (somewhat ominously), “half of my life.”
On Creativity (And Closing This Out)
In a 2013 interview, Yorke told the Guardian, “I think artists can influence only through making music that challenges people, excites them and flips them out. Music that repeats what you know in ever-decreasing derivation, that’s unchallenging and un-stimulating, deadens our minds, our imagination and our ability to see beyond the hell we find ourselves in.”
By contrast, more than century earlier in 1902, Joyce wrote, “Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality. It speaks of what seems fantastic and unreal to those who have lost the simple intuitions which are the test of reality.”
These two quotes establish the task each man set before himself. The goal is the same: to create something new and miraculous, that lives in the context of the everyday. It’s been written that, “the more an artist deviates from the norm and delves into his or her own personal randomness, the less understandable the products of such a creative process are going to be to anybody else.”
It’s in the essence of that quote that Thom Yorke and James Joyce have made their mark, as men who are constantly diving into the rift between what has been established — and what is possible in the scope of human imagination.