At the outset of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” from their landmark album Kid A, we are greeted by both gentle guitar strumming and a dissonant, persistent synth note–the latter of which tells us that something is off. Immediately, the lyrics begin a story singer Thom Yorke has attributed to a dream in which he floated around Dublin’s River Liffey: “That there / That’s not me / I go / Where I please / I walk through walls / I float down the Liffey.” As the narrator drifts further from his body, the instrumentation acquires pace and intensity, with drums and more sophisticated keyboard riffs entering the accompaniment. As the experience reaches its zenith, I am always struck by what seems to me a moment of choice: aching, discordant strings create the feeling of an open maw, a yawning abyss that seems to represent the decision to permanently sever the cord tethering one to one’s body. Or, one can reluctantly return to the state of embodiment, which is what the narrator does at the close of this song.
Radiohead has played with these themes for a long time, beginning with the band’s breakout grunge song, “Creep;” continuing on with another standout song examining karmic weight, “Karma Police;” and culminating with the aforementioned track, “How to Disappear Completely,” in which the soul flirts with leaving the body entirely. Even later Radiohead work continues this exploration, with tracks such as “Reckoner,” “Give up the Ghost,” and “Daydreaming” portraying various states of ascension, paradise, and surreality. Commencing with “Creep” and proceeding throughout all these songs, the band’s subject is the individual soul’s infinite possibilities for alienation, depression, and momentary transcendence.
I have long called Radiohead my favorite band, and for me, the reason is that this examination strikes at the level of the soul, treating the dilemmas my soul encounters through embodiment, time-boundedness, and socialization. While other musical genres–such as rock–meet me at the level of the heart, and other genres still–such as rap–at the level of the mind, Radiohead manages to touch me somewhere deeper, illuminating conditions beyond words and yet that can be portrayed and delivered through music. In these songs, a part of me feels seen that is rarely glimpsed through any medium or interaction.
And yet there is another band, the Icelandic group Sigur Rós, through whose oeuvre such questions of the soul’s alienation are eradicated, and I would like to bring home this point through describing one of the band’s opening tracks on its 2005 album Takk, a track called “Glósóli.”
At the dawn of this track, speckled, quiet instrumentation renders the image of birds and bugs flittering over an open field, or of lightning bugs enchanting that field at night. Instantaneously, there is a sense of wonder, of sublimity. As the panoramic tableau gives way to sensitive strokes of the bass and a searing falsetto, we are witness to the state of reverence as expressed by humanity, and it is as though a mountain is rising from the immense, aforementioned field. As the lyrics, bass, and soon a guitar and drums gain prominence, the mountain grows in height, and what becomes clear is that we are in a world of tremendous proportions, grace, and acuity. Something beyond humanity’s ability to articulate confronts us, and it is something both generous and incredible.
Eventually, the softness and magic of this opening are broken by a thudding drum beat, which then is shattered by a metal-style electric guitar. And yet there is nothing crude or cruel about this intrusion; instead, the guitar notes seem to amplify the state of awe and gratitude the entire song has been expressing, the mountain’s immaculate beauty thereby bringing tears to our eyes. Too, it is no coincidence that throughout this song–and throughout many of Sigur Rós’s tracks–vocalist Jónsi’s lyrics intermix Icelandic with an invented language the group refers to as “Volenska”–here, human language is irrelevant, since that language is incapable of capturing the magnitude of what, on earth, we have inherited. That is, Sigur Rós’s music, like Radiohead’s, covers a territory where language fails us.
And yet there are important differences between these two artists, most of which can be discerned simply by comparing “Glósóli” with “How to Disappear Completely.” In the latter track, the subject is the soul’s state of alienation from the body; as described above, this is a subject Radiohead traces throughout the entirety of its oeuvre, beginning with more mundane kinds of alienation and culminating in alienation from the body itself. In “Glósóli,” on the other hand, the subject is what lies outside the soul, something so grand that it instantly silences the soul’s complaints about its state of being. From the perspective of the mountain “Glósóli” gradually calls to mind, then openly worships, nothing need be said.
For me, there is something transcendent about both Radiohead’s and Sigur Rós’s music, and yet they approach and treat the maladies of the soul from entirely different angles. For Radiohead, it is important merely to name, articulate, and create worlds surrounding these maladies, in order that those who suffer them can feel seen. This being accomplished, Radiohead’s music forges community around something which is inherently alienating–and in that respect, it is a work of magic. Taking an entirely different approach, Sigur Rós demonstrates that the soul’s quest to feel “right” in itself is myopic, since there is a world “out here”–God’s world–in which such a quest becomes nonsensical. “Just look at the mountain,” Sigur Rós seems to say, “Just listen to the birds and bugs atop the field.” Nothing is so scary or so disconcerting as it might feel, from the perspective of the individual, alienated soul–there is a world of inconceivable grace and wonder offered to us absolutely for free, and as our birthright.
Through listening to Radiohead’s artistry, then Sigur Rós’s, we first isolate and expose the soul’s inescapable condition of truncation from the soothing, edenic all; then remember that Eden is right here, that it is precisely by being born as individual souls that we can feel and see it. In other words, without our being individuated in the first place, we would be unable not only to float around the Liffey, but to behold the field and the mountain it births–deep pleasures given to us by God. And that being the case, our concerns are washed into nothing.