Radiohead: The World’s Most Likable Steampunks

March 30, 2011

The same day enterprising young code-wranglers were dismantling The New York Times’ $40 million paywall for 4Chan bragging rights and uninterrupted Mark Bittman, a rock band from Oxfordshire was quietly revisiting the quaint and plaintive art of the print broadsheet. Rewinding the concept of the ‘street team’ to the era in which diminuitive boys disseminated papers while wearing checkered caps (job uniform), the experimental ensemble known as Radiohead planted newsboys and girls in 50 cities across the world, each wielding a stacks of their one-day-only newspaper, The Universal Sigh. It was an unexpectedly steampunk move for a band so insistent on pushing forth the modes of the music industry; four years ago, for instance, Radiohead envisioned a futuristic, sliding-scale internet, infamously offering In Rainbows downloads for the can’t-beat-it price of basically whatever you wanted. Sometimes their tactics have rankled –– when Napster was still just a babe, myself and other renegades, toiling outside the system in the uncharted topography of Portland, Oregon, were infuriated by their guerilla tactic of spraypainting the Kid A logo on sidewalks and under bridges. They were appropriating an element of hip-hop!!! These days, creative marketing in music is par for the course, even a matter of survival. And, as Bandcamp can attest, Radiohead has been a scarce example of real vision in a landscape with a paucity of it.

The album blends Thom Yorke’s light-in-a-clearing voice with an almost equal balance of sanguine instruments and raceway electronics… On the other hand, the broadsheet’s tactile qualities clearly iterate a life cycle.

In that way, Radiohead’s newspaper is also ironic: They’re bucking the constructs of one dying industry by utilizing the physical relic of another. Misery does love company, after all — or maybe it’s just that Radiohead loves ephemera. And who doesn’t? As CDs were phasing out to make way for the infinite horizon of the mp3, one constant worry among collectors and Luddites was that liner notes would vanish and album art would be relegated to impotent, micropixelated .jpgs — victims of technology’s constant miniaturization. The response, of course, was that everything old developed a new sheen; vinyl collectors have flourished, the 7-inch record has enjoyed a vigorous renaissance and there is even a burgeoning crop of cassette purists out there both releasing and collecting tracks only on acetate. (As someone who still has quite a few old tapes from the 1990s purely on packrat status, I must ask of you: Why?) Radiohead, with their newspaper — along with both spectacle and added value as they say in the SEO biz — created something special, a unique personalized experience in these days when fans practically expect mouth to mouth from their favorite artists. Go to designated spot, pick up newspaper, snap a pic, end up on the internet.

More importantly, the album, The King of Limbs, would feel empty without its stark short fiction, poetic sighs, screenprinted graphics, the word ‘infinity’ stamped backwards between stalactites and sequoias; plus fairy tales about God, desire and magpies. The album blends Thom Yorke’s light-in-a-clearing voice with an almost equal balance of sanguine instruments and raceway electronics — they don’t sacrifice form for style, but beyond the breakbeats and pedals, it’s evident they’re itching to get back to the land. It doesn’t middle, but feels vaguely noncommital – not because its short length, but because of its relative ordinaryness, musically speaking. On the other hand, the broadsheet’s tactile qualities — read it in PDF form at Stereogum, but visualize newsprint — clearly iterate a life cycle. Trees are chopped so that newsprint may be made and Radiohead can print photos of trees upon it. (There is also an essay about trees, and the climbing of them, by Robert Macfarlane, the travel writer.) As ever, Yorke’s weeping-willow qualities make the album’s center, and here his mournfulness seems to come from his standard esoteric place — alienation, despondence, hopefulness, too. (Unless we’re meant to take the lyrics literally in which case, Magpie, dog, give the magic back.) But as a full package, the whole affair takes on a yesteryear-yearning that seems both a little out of character (other than the yearning) and yet another savvy move into the future.