The visual sounds of Radiohead

A retrospective on the band’s album artwork and music videos

Despite the fact that music is primarily an audio-based platform, visuals have always played an integral role in how the medium is consumed. Album artwork, costumes, logos and music videos are important, even necessary. For an artist to cultivate a public image that defines their style of music, they need to display a particular interest in visual media .

Radiohead, for instance, has placed an emphasis on visual aspects. Always working in tandem with artist Stanley Donwood during the recording process to create striking album artwork, Radiohead backs up its music with similarly strong visual elements.

From the 1995 release of The Bends, lead singer Thom Yorke, under the pseudonym Dr. Tchock, has collaborated with longtime friend Donwood on every aspect of the band’s visuals. According to a 2006 The Guardian interview with Yorke, the friends met while attending the University of Exeter in England. They shared a mutual reverence for experimental art and music. Since then, the pair have collaborated on Radiohead’s iconic album artwork and packaging: from the cold, desolate highways of OK Computer (1997) to the colourful and glitchy energy of In Rainbows (2007) and the aged sliver of the recent A Moon Shaped Pool (2016).

Radiohead’s album art manages to capture the mood and atmosphere set out by the ambitious sounds of their albums, creating visuals that enrich the music. Through their artmaking process, Yorke and Donwood capture the full spirit of the music. According to NME, Donwood even painted album art for A Moon Shaped Pool while the band recorded it in an adjacent room. While listening to the band record, Donwood translated the soundscapes emitting from the recording room into visuals—encapsulating the energy of the music through unique and often strange imagery.

For the cover of A Moon Shaped Pool, Donwood and Yorke utilized weather conditions to create living artwork. Earlier this year, in an interview with Creative Review, Donwood said: “I did some experiments with pools of water and paint and wind on quite a small scale, and it seemed to work in quite an interesting way. So I thought, ‘Well this will be great, I’ll just scale up.’ So I bought a ridiculous number of large canvases and paint, and we all went down to Provence, just south of Avignon, to where [Radiohead] recorded—a place called La Fabrique, which is a really lovely place, an old mill where they used to make the red dye for Napoleon’s uniforms.”

This process created truly bold artwork, reflecting the maturity of the band and the vibrant, organic sound of their album. The pair are never complacent in the way they make art, always challenging themselves with new ideas and styles.

Music videos also have the ability to complement the accompanied music, as they pair the songs with a matching aesthetic. Radiohead’s music videos are sometimes dark and twisted, strange and cryptic, emotional and even funny.

The video for “Just” (1995) revolves around a grieving man, laying on the sidewalk. A passersby asks him, “What’s wrong?” with subtitles denoting their conversations. The video and lyrics combine to make an extended metaphor about the systemic disadvantages often faced by minority communities. The video ends with the man telling the large crowd of people what’s wrong, except that part isn’t subtitled. The band, to this day, has never revealed what the man said.

“Paranoid Android” (1997) is a strange animated video, matching the song’s eerily raucous sound. The video follows a boy’s strange day, which includes naked mermaids, a drunk politician who decapitates himself, a man with a head growing out of his stomach and an angel flying a helicopter. It’s a frantic and chaotic video that perfectly captures the essence of the song— encapsulating the disconcerting feeling of being disoriented.

Recently, Radiohead has released relatively subdued videos. As the band has matured, their creative approach toward music videos has matured as well. The video for “Lotus Flower” (2011) features the wild dance moves of Yorke, shot using a simple black-and-white camera filter. For the “Daydreaming” (2016) video, the band enlisted the help of prolific movie director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The video has Yorke walking through different vignettes of people’s lives, eventually receding into a cave, atop a mountain covered in snow. The video for “Burn the Witch” (2016) is a stop-motion film which retells the story of the 1973 cult-classic film, The Wicker Man—about a policeman who is entrapped into participating in a sacrificial ceremony.

The videos are not simple or lacking complexity. For example, stop-motion animation is very intensive work, which requires each shot to be fully realized on paper before shooting in a proper studio. And while the video for “Daydreaming” may look simple, the variety of locations and the ability to light them correctly for a 35mm camera takes a lot of preparation. Nothing a savvy director like Thomas Anderson can’t handle.

Visuals are never an afterthought for Radiohead; the band works tirelessly to produce art that enriches its music. Video and artwork give fans a shared experience, with fans working together to uncover the hidden meaning behind each minute detail. Music goes beyond just sound—when love and care are put into the visuals, something truly special is created.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


The power of music in difficult times

A personal review of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

In times of change and fear, listening to music can be a cathartic experience, as it offers an escape from reality. Music can also reflect the moods and events that occurred during its creation. Last year, Radiohead released A Moon Shaped Pool which, for me personally, was the most impactful album of 2016. I repeatedly go back to the album to lament and escape the events that are happening in the world today. The album not only relates to my own anxieties, but captures overall feelings of anxiety, apathy, hope and lost love through lyrics and instrumentation.

Radiohead continues to evolve and change their sound instead of rehashing their past albums such as OK Computer or Kid A. The band’s sound reflects their age and the ways they have evolved. The album opens with the track “Burn the Witch,” a legendary unrecorded song known amongst ardent Radiohead fans. The song consists of violent violin plucking, a drum machine and a bass guitar, which together create a hectic, yet structured sound. Lead singer Thom Yorke sings “This is a low flying panic attack,” evoking anxiety about a metaphorical witch-hunt. “Burn the Witch,” both the song and music video, make an allusion to the 1973 version of the movie, The Wicker Man.   It tells the story of a detective going to investigate a disappearance on an island where they have sacrificial rituals. These rituals make reference to the “burn the witch” chorus, which refers to a “witch-hunt.” The song conveys an unwilling coercion, with its main hooks, “Burn the witch, we know where you live” and “Abandon all reason.” The song’s lyrics and sound, touches on the idea of political movements dividing people into “common people” and “metropolitan elite.”

The emotionally impactful track “Glass Eyes” is beautifully orchestrated, with gentle piano playing. The lyrics paint an image of a depressing grey world, where Yorke sings in a subtly depressing tone: “Hey it’s me I just got off the train, a frightening place, the faces are concrete grey and I’m wondering, should I turn ‘round? Buy another ticket? Panic is coming on strong.” In the song, Yorke sings about wandering off down a mountain path, not caring where he goes, just as long as he escapes this panic attack. I relate to these lyrics personally, as moving to Montreal for university was hard because of all the social anxiety I experienced. Last year, my anxiety flared up—walking down the street brought on a sense of panic, my heart rate would rise and I had to lower my gaze to avoid eye contact. Sometimes, I needed to be alone, to forget about the panic that was brought on by large public spaces. The song captured my anxiety, to the point where I cried on my bed the very first time I heard it. “Glass Eyes” is one of the only songs that has ever made me cry. This track uses a combination of an orchestra and Yorke’s somber, aged voice to illustrate a beautifully depressing image of a panic attack.

In the song “Present Tense,” Yorke describes a scene of a world crumbling around him, as he sings about dancing and clinging on to the things he knows and loves. “Present Tense” has sounds influenced by Latin music, and the song is constantly changing. A choir comes in halfway through the song as the drums kick in, and the vocal melody is constantly evolving, delivering an emotional punch and meditative state of reflection.

As Yorke sings “As my world comes crashing down, I’m dancing, freaking out, deaf, dumb and blind,” I feel he uses dancing as a way to save himself from distress. I love the image of dancing while the world is ending, not having the ability to do anything, content with the fact that the world is coming to an end. The song ends with the loving line, “In you, I’m lost.” “Present Tense” gives a hopeful message of love and catharsis. It reminds me of when I saw Radiohead at Osheaga this past summer. I’ll never forget the sense of community at Osheaga—camping out to see Radiohead for 12 hours at the main stage, dehydrated, with my legs feeling numb. The most memorable moment was when the whole crowd started singing “Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself,” the outro to “Karma Police.” Thom Yorke even extended the song, playing guitar while the crowd continued singing. “True Love Waits” is another mythical, unrecorded song on the album which dates back to the The Bends era (circa 1995).

The song on bootlegs — the unofficial recording that got released, (which only had Yorke playing acoustic guitar) was a hopeful, youthful song about unrequited love. However, more than 20 years later, the song is transformed with a minimalist sound. Yorke’s voice sounds strained and evokes a sense of sadness, accompanied with simple-sounding piano sounds. The sappy lines, like “and true love lives on lollipops and crisps,” seem more like desperate attempts to cling to an innocent time.

Now, Radiohead has transformed an old song’s seemingly outdated and naive lyrics into a truly depressing song. “True Love Waits” is an emotional gut punch, with lines like “I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” and the somber closing line: “Just don’t leave, don’t leave.” This song encapsulates how I feel about the year 2016. It was a shit year for many of us, but I’m glad we have music that reflected the essence of that year in a supporting way.

Radiohead and many other artists came out with albums in 2016 that were fun, exciting and relevant to today—they didn’t ignore the problems we are facing, didn’t just wish for everything to be okay. Instead, they faced them by making incredible music. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool is not a political album—it never mentions specifics—yet manages to capture the emotions we continue to face, with wicked instrumentation and abstract lyrics.

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