Who knows, were he born a century earlier perhaps Radiohead’s Thom Yorke might have picked up a paintbrush instead of a microphone. Yorke and 19th century Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1857-1890) occupy completely different artistic fields from different eras and seemingly different worlds, but with the release of Radiohead’s recent In Rainbows Yorke proves yet again that—despite the 115 years that separate their births—and he is a spiritual brother of the legendary painter. There is something in each of these men that screams its way into the conscience of the world, something undeniably distorted and utterly beautiful.
Refusing to give in to the burden of past successes Radiohead’s 10-track disc is a disturbed take on everything from love and vice to trust and isolation. In Rainbows features some of Yorke’s most haunting lyrics and some of the most playfully elusive guitar hooks ever conjured out of the mind of Jonny Greenwood. Somehow this digitally glitch-filled collection manages to be both organic and quietly pleasing.
Both Yorke and Van Gogh are masters at conjuring abstract expressions of the world around them from unique, albeit troubled perspectives. Van Gogh wore his crazies right out on his sleeve—be it the bloodletting, ear-gouging moments, or twisted works like “Skull with Cigarette.” Yorke’s eccentricities, though subtle in nature, are also strangely unsettling. His spine-tingling, deranged falsetto croon sounds at times like frostbitten wind whipping through a desolate house and his lyrics often descend into a surreal, paranoid darkness as with “Jigsaw Fall Into Place” from In Rainbow’s:
The walls abandon shape
You’ve got a Cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission
Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you’re comatose
Yeah, not exactly “Love Me Do.” This is the kind of stuff I’d imagine Dali painting after a long acid trip.
Both Van Gogh and Yorke enter art from a background filled with failure, rejection, and loss. Van Gogh spent his young adult life chasing after a preacher’s calling that never stuck, sleeping on straw mats and eating little more than bread and water. After he had given up the thought of becoming a clergyman like his father, his life was still fraught with personal and professional uncertainty, public rejection and deep depression up until his tragic and lonely suicide in a wheat field outside of Paris in 1890.
Pricked and Prodded
Though Yorke has experienced success and recognition during his lifetime that Van Gogh couldn’t have dreamed of, he has struggled with bouts of depression that resulted in a withdrawal from spotlight and public fame. His own childhood nightmares and resentments loom large over his body of work. Nearly from birth, Yorke was pricked and prodded under the surgeon’s blade for an eye condition that was never fully repaired (this “lazy eye” has become something of a trademark for him). Those insecurities may be best voiced on “Creep”, a song that became a crucial early success for the band.
At the heart of both these artists is something that connects with us lowly, less deranged humans. There is a looming feeling that everything isn’t in its right place—that at our core there is something very strange in each and every one of us. Warm, isn’t it? But that’s the whole point—life can be a strange fate. It reminds us that for every American Idol aspirant out there smiling for the camera, somewhere there is a tortured artist tucked away in their room, pouring out less-than-pretty stories.
The songs on In Rainbows build on Yorke’s mistrust of mainstream ideals with stories of sexual frustration and isolation in “House of Cards,” to the perverted need of Western society to document our entire lives with the down-tempo “Videotape.” Reality and the status quo are never taken for granted, but are instead turned upside down and gutted.
This is art that screams to be heard and always seems to find a way into society. It is a way of rebelling against the status quo, but more importantly this painful genius often acts as a warning, a wake up call to change the world for the better. Van Gogh’s swirling “Starry Night” spits in the face of the 19th century’s serene, perfectionist landscapes. It calls us to wake to the chaotic, inconstant world spinning around us. For the past 15 years, Radiohead has continued to break through the senseless chattering of pop with distorted drum-machines, synthetic vocals and menacing guitar work—all of which carry something more, calling us to think for ourselves. These are the visions we need to see, these are the notes we long to hear.