(2) Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees"
Analysis by Matt Vadnais
It is tempting to divide Radiohead’s oeuvre into two periods separated by the arrival of blips, beeps, and other bits of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. However, listening to “Fake Plastic Trees” now, years after Radiohead of The Bends became Radiohead of Kid A, one remembers that Radiohead songs are and have always been about the emotional cost of living a world seemingly and increasingly designed to alienate and dehumanize. As such, Radiohead’s famous transition away from guitar-driven anthems like “Fake Plastic Trees” is probably better understood as a clarification of purpose through an evolution of form. Even in the band’s earliest anthems – the crunched power chords that punctuate “Creep” and the orchestral guitar work that threatens to over-inflate this song– we can find dissonance and interruption. From The Bends to Ok Computer and eventually Kid A, these dissonances move from being elements of crescendo in service to fairly conventional rock songs about alienation into being truly obstructive elements that threaten to drown their respective songs in joyless, alienating mud.
Of course, for Radiohead fans, the magic of latter-day Radiohead is that dissonance itself becomes meaningful. I stand by my initial description of these elements as Brechtian; however, where Brecht employed the distancing effect to allow one the intellectual remove necessary to avoid getting swept up in an emotional diction that Brecht believed to have no choice but to reify the status quo, Radiohead’s distancing effect is ultimately interested in its listener feeling things, things that are unavailable to songs generating emotion via a traditional emotional diction. In comparison to the kind of isolation and alienation that ironically animates “Everything in its Right Place” or “How to Disappear Completely,” we might be inclined to hear “Fake Plastic Trees” as naïve, immature, or, worse, as unaware that its emotional crescendo is as fake as the plastic things Thom is on about. As such, “Fake Plastic Trees” can be understood as an early and fatally flawed attempt at a Radiohead Song, one in which words have meaning and a person can articulate what he or she wants. “Fake Plastic Trees” contributes, in spite of itself, to the illusion of shared human experience that better Radiohead Songs associate with numbness and alienation.
Returning to the tendency to think of Radiohead as two bands, we would do well to remember that the arrival of the blips and bleeps was coterminous with the band becoming famous. “Fake Plastic Trees” only became the kind of song that non-Radiohead people loved after they had already stopped making songs like “Fake Plastic Trees.” Ok Computer was possible because no one really paid much attention to The Bends. All of this is to say that the song isn’t just an artifact made by a band foolhardy enough to believe that an anthem intended for mass distribution could be an emotionally honest portrait of loneliness and isolation, but one that was made by a band that desperately wanted to be famous. Even if, for me at least, this song isn’t on the shortlist of best Radiohead Songs, it is perhaps the saddest Radiohead Song because, every time we hear the swell of Jonny’s guitar cut away to an organ and Thom’s naked and embarrassing wish to “be what you wanted / all the time,” we hear the voice of a man who once believed that fame would alleviate all of the stuff that Radiohead Songs are about.
Matt Vadnais writes reviews and essays for Cover Me and is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver, a collection of stories exploring the notion of the cover in a variety of literary contexts. He wrote extensively and autobiographically about music in a social media project, The Best 200 Songs in My iTunes Library. He hosts The Liminal Space, a weekly radio show on WBCR, the campus radio station for Beloit College where he is an assistant professor of renaissance literature and creative writing.
(6) This Mortal Coil, “Song to the Siren”
Analysis by Brian Blanchfield
On the floating ship’s oceans I did all my best new smile / to your singing eyes and fingers, germane of any to your isle / and you sang, said to me, say to me, let me enfold you. / Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.
Did I dream you dreamed about me? Were you here when I was for sale? / Now my foolish boat is leaning, broken floor on your rock. / For you sing: touch me not touch me not, come back tomorrow. / Oh my heart, oh my heart shines from the sorrow.
Well I’m as poisoned as a newborn child, I’m as a riddled as the tide. / Should I stand at the breakers, or should I lie with death my bride? / Hear me sing: Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you. / Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.
Are these the words? They are anyway the ones I moaned and howled when I wore this cassette out in the late eighties. Ander will say it is true to form that I refuse to know better; but, in the case of this song, which above all others in my Walkman’s high rotation carried insuperable mystery for me, the haziness is constitutive. I mean, what could it mean? I’m quite sure I had not read Homer. Still, I knew what a siren was, and the gender play of singing siren-like about listening to the siren song had what in it what I was discovering was my kind of enigma. Also, where were they: some kind or cathedral or bridge anchorage?—there are not more cavernous acoustics than these in any recorded song I know—and by the way, who were they? This Mortal Coil, yes, but wasn’t this the Cocteau Twins? It took me a while to learn, daring to ask my questions at Repo Records on Central Boulevard in Charlotte, NC. I would’ve nodded as if knowledgeably when told this was a cover of Tim Buckley (reckoning on the spot that he was distinct from Jeff Buckley), and the other great song on the tape was a cover of Big Star. I backfilled my music history same as I do my bookshelves, revivalist to the end. To the beginnings.
I know where I would have first heard it, this song that felt captured from another reality. I was sleepy all Monday morning every Monday morning in high school, like my friends Tom Bavis and Greg Donilon, from watching Sunday night’s 120 Minutes, which had the intensity of scholarship for us, reviewing for each other the nuances of all that declared itself, like us, alternative. And also performing lines from the (if there were more than a dozen, I’d be surprised) episodes of The Young Ones that aired afterward. I did a good Neal, but I had a lot of Vyvyan in me. “At one stage, I sort of slipped me dungarees down…”
The bigger mystery is whether and how This Mortal Coil anticipated that a boy in central-piedmont North Carolina needed to wail the elongated phonemes of this song of huge, free-floating desire, in the fathoms of its depths, even as he pivot-turned the lawnmower and paced parallel swaths, back and forth, back and forth, rewinding, starting again. I could not perform without that engine of covering. Reminds me of a habit I had living in New York City, quite unconscious. On any station platform, day or night, I’d stand at the very end, so as to board the last car, and as the screeching train roared out of the tunnel and began its long braking, I would then and only then launch into song, some deeply ingrained line, utterly releasing. Full sail. That’s not the words. Neither are these, but they were mine, apostrophic as a prayer and better off answerless, sung to the sound of sound:
Were you here when I was for sale?
Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of poetry and prose--most recently Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, published by Nightboat Books, right about now. He's the host of Speedway and Swan, a poetry and music show, in partnership with KXCI Community Radio and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
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