It’s not that death is unexpected. Even untimely, it demands acceptance. Perhaps the most odious snark is to criticize how others mourn a passing. I won’t do that. This year of avulsion has wrenched our future from the familiar channels of our politics, our nostalgia, and our efforts to mean something.

Deaths aren’t the only occasions for existential confrontation with ourselves. Maybe we’re struck upon seeing the surface of another planet or reading about the sterilizing jets of a gamma ray burst. But these only extend to further realms of the unimaginable the truth we learn more directly when struggling through the sands and forests of terrestrial wilderness: We are not the universe’s conceptual center. What is yet still harder won is to feel, rather than just to think, not that we are within the universe but that we in fact are the universe, our separateness an illusion and our sensed connections a pale but suggestive reflection of reality.

Jedediah Purdy warns against taking too far the belief that reality is a continuous fabric, its people, rocks, and stars not discrete phenomena but conceived as such by the mind - and this, the mind’s construction, as much an undifferentiated ripple as falling rocks or calving glaciers. As he puts it, we may be tempted, especially in this moment, to combat the myopia of self-interest by believing “biological identities are possible only because of aliens within us, the bacteria and portmanteau cells that form our so-called selves.” But this, he reminds us, is “inadequate because it does not take seriously ... that democratic community is utterly real, as real as dirt, because we are trapped in it, because the facts we majoritarian bandits choose become the facts we live with every day.”

And that is indeed the brute fact, that we do suffer, that we do fear, and that we do thrill and love. Even though we are the universe, this universe that we are imagines alternatives to the causes and effects that mark its temporal shape. It imagines joy and suffering, the very real, grounded states we believe are our own. In culture, as well as in law, it expresses as a humming multitude of minds all aware of one another, a hall of mirrors.

The deaths this year have come as repeated blows to this collective imagination. So many talents, so many hauntingly beautiful and wonderfully flawed people have left us. They stand in even greater relief against the electoral victory of Trump, a triumph of fear over imagination itself. His toddler instincts are so obviously the unrepressed failures of introspection that we all sometimes recognize bubbling up within ourselves. He secretes them as infantile demands to be adored, to be the most powerful, and to get the last hit, demands the rest of us usually damp through inner, reflective conversation. It feels too much to bear that his repeated, embarrassing blatherings are treated as important, even as we mourn the passing of adult lives of such full scope.

From music, to art, to science, to film, and even to goofy TV shows whose decades-old cathode beams still illuminate our adult minds, our culture and its pioneers are shadowy representations of the true fact of our togetherness. Their genius is ours. Their failings, ours. To say this is to engage in more than collective claiming, it is to restate the ultimate truth. While our universal body regularly sheds its skins, mostly escaping similarly universal notice, we find ourselves now ridden with cancer and wishing them back, that our body would cease its sloughing and keep warm by a hearth we wish were there.

All My Radiohead

Radiohead's ninth album will arrive tomorrow at 2 p.m. where I live. Today, I'm going to listen to every album and EP that I have. I'll record some thoughts here. I'm going to start with Pablo Honey, to which I've only listened a few times. I'll end with the Spectre single that was released on Christmas Day 2015. It should be roughly eight and a half hours of music. All this is stream of consciousness. So, there will be typos - and bad writing.

Pablo Honey

May 7, 2016, 10:15 a.m.: And we're underway with the electric guitars of You. And I'm back in 1993 listening to 107.7 K-NACK as I pass through Austin on the way to backpacking in the desert. More soon.

10:20: Creep. Well, I should say first that this album is not why I'm a Radiohead fan. It barely contains any hint at all of what will be "so fucking special" about this band. The second track, Creep, is a bit of a hint. But, like the rest of the album, it mostly taps into a guitar-driven, youth-infused landscape that was cracked open for me by Nirvana.

I've always been the type to become obsessed with things. When I was a pre-teen it was Prince. Then, and it happened in one moment, I played Pink Floyd's Final Cut. And I was immediately obsessed with everything Pink Floyd. And Led Zeppelin. At some point, I was introduced to REM and saw them in concert on the Document tour in Clemson.

I was 21 in 1993. And moved to graduate school in Texas. In the summer of 1994, I did my first big climbing trip in the Northwest. The road trips were a big part of my life. And it just felt like my generation was coming into its own, our tastes, our music, our voices. It was such a freeing time. That's where the new alt-radio, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and sleeping in the open air under the West Texas stars fit in.

Stop Whispering is a decent track. Now Thinking About You is playing. Yeah, it just seems to fit in to that early 90s zeitgeist without in any way transcending it. It sounds like a young group with talent who are trying to make music that will break through.

10:36: Anyone Can Play Guitar, now on to Ripcord. These are more interesting (nostalgic?) than I remember them. It's hard to hear them without thinking the Crash Test Dummies will come up next. I didn't own this album and am not sure when I first heard these songs. If I were a decent musician, maybe I'd be able to hear hints of future genius in here. But I don't, just the REM/Pink Floyd/punk melange of the early 90s, well-executed but not timeless.

10:43: "I will not control myself" from Vegetable. Love it. And now on to "I'm better off dead," Prove Yourself. A very, very Sugar vibe to this one. God, I'm liking these songs more than I thought I would.

10:51: Lurgee. This is a much more interesting album than I remember from earlier listens. Is the second half more compelling? Would it hold up as more than an archaeology of grunge? Here's the closer, Blow Out. This is another good song. I think if my 21-year-old self had bought this album, I'd have become obsessed with it. Yes, it's still beholden to conventions that hold it back. That will persist, to some degree, up until Kid A. But there are some good ideas in here. And focusing on the music, I'm coming around to it.

The Bends

10:58: We jump to 1995. I've been through a depressing period starting graduate school but now am in a much better place. I'm just about to become an activist within the Sierra Club and restart a local group. My wife and I have some good friends in Texas, and our trips to the desert and plans for summer mountaineering are omnipresent. Lots of trips into Austin.

I still wasn't a Radiohead fan when The Bends came out. I don't know how I missed it. I know I liked some of the tracks when I heard them. I just didn't buy it. And you had to buy CDs in those days. I think I was listening to a lot of REM, Tori Amos, Mazzy Star, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, Cake, etc. in those days. Maybe just starting to dabble in Philip Glass.

Planet Telex is a good opening track, sounding so much more like Radiohead, at least conventional Radiohead, to me.

11:03: Now that we're hearing a much better hint of the specialness of this band, here's my theory. Good rock bands usually feature a member with unusual creative talent and other members who are good at their instruments. Special bands, those that transcend, are the ones that have two different, but unusually talented musicians. Many bands form among friends, and so there's no reason to expect that two creative geniuses will wind up in a band together. They're people who knew each other at school. But every now and then it happens. The Beatles had Paul, John, and George. REM had it. U2 has it. You can go down the list.

Radiohead somehow wound up forming around a bunch of gifted, creative musicians. And they complement one another unusually well. Jonny and Thom are a stunningly interesting combination of talents. And that's not to gainsay the talents of the other members of the band. This is not normal science.

11:11: Fake Plastic Trees. "She lives with a broken man..." "He used to do surgery..." These lines get me. This is a timeless song.

11:13: This is also one of those songs I heard in a movie that totally took me over. And it was Clueless, which we saw in the theater for some reason.

11:16: I've always liked Bones. It has that grungy verse-chorus structue, but it feels so realized and has musical turns that make me feel like I'm flying with it. And the guitar tweaks in just the right way. Again, none of this is near, for me, the genius of the later records, but there's a lot of great stuff here.

11:19: (Nice Dream). They can write melodies, and this one is just so great. And it's not just a throwaway verse and one hook-y line for the chorus. It's a continuous float. At least up until the guitars at about 2:30, which don't add anything for me. The easy guitars communicating and soft voice are pacific, but there are background elements of dread. Makes me think of How to Disappear Completely.

11:26: Partly in response to the 11:03 post, @crustopher on Twitter writes - "And to further your Beatles comparison, I've always felt the Bends/OKC/Kid A arc tracked that of Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt Pepper's." Interesting. I do think that there'd be a very tight symmetry if, say, Amnesiac had been their last album. From convention and popularity, to new directions and dramatic influence.

11:32: Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was. Love this song. The noodly but focused guitar line that goes with the chorus. I do feel like that there's something more this song could do. Now on to the fade-in of Black Star. Love this song, too. The verse gets its hooks in. It's the chorus that feels more ordinary and takes me out of it. Best title though. You know, I remember so many songs from my youth where there'd be elements I wish could go on forever and conventional-sounding things I wish could be dropped. (I remember going to symphonies and wishing the tuning would go on forever, the individual and yet collective effort, bowing past one another and together. I loved that drone. And then the all-too-mathematically-perfect and crowd-pleasing bit of music would begin...) So this is one, where I just wish it were all verse.

11:42: Streep Spirit (Fade Out). Radiohead fans still love this one, and I do too. Like much of The Bends, it doesn't escape its time, but it reflects the band's embrace of a musical identity in the way Pablo Honey didn't. Well, maybe it does transcend its time. There's just so much to like on this album, as a great rock album.


11:48: Banana Co. and Talk Show Host. Banana Co. - the acoustic version - pulls the same thread as Fake Plastic Trees. Talk Show Host is excellent. It's original in its construction, sound, lyrics. You can live in it. "I want to be someone else." "You want me? Fuckin' then come on and break the door down. I'm ready." "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing." Nigel Godrich really came into his own with this one. I love songs that came before this one. But not like I love this one.

OK Computer

11:52: Yep.

11:53: This is the first Radiohead album I bought. (As I'll mention, and for reasons, I only really discovered Kid A and Amnesiac several years after their release.) It's now 1997. In a year, my wife and I will have our first son. I'm finishing a PhD and seriously devoting my time to environmental activism. At this point, I'm thinking about law school and a career as an environmental attorney. I'm writing local press releases about climate change (decrying the gag order in Congress that prevented agencies from even talking about global warming) and about the destruction of local creeks. And I'm reading lots of Ed Abbey, taking week-long trips in Canyonlands, lots to Big Bend, climbed Mt. Olympus, Rainier, failed on Baker, Shuksan, and Challenger. But these were the days.

And I bought this from the little CD shop across the street from campus. Listening at a time when I was diving into Philip Glass and local folk music. Kundun was about to come out. I was organizing evening star parties in the country for our local Sierra Club. Yeah, I'm trying, but I can't entirely recapture those days.

"What's this?" Needless to say, Paranoid Android is a great track.

12:03: "From a great height. From a great height. God loves his children." What must they have been thinking when they finished this track?

12:09: "Today, we escape. We escape." Exit Music (For a Film) is one of my favorite tracks here. The brooding space it creates for your own thoughts is classic Radiohead. Is this maybe the most post-Kid A tarck on the album? "Now we are one." Same music as the subdued "we escape" but so different. Interestingly, I've misunderstood the final lyrics to this one. I had always heard in my head "We all let you jump, let you jump" rather than "We hope that you choke." My misheard lyrics are... darker. And now on to Let Down, which at the time was my favorite track. Funny. I still like it a lot, but I wouldn't say it's my favorite at all. It has this driving techno-phobia to it - but that drive sweeps you along, a body out of control hurtling along a robotics-filled track.

12:18: Karma Police. "He talks in maths. He buzzes like a fridge." Looking ahead, this album ends so strongly. The only wrong note - and I'll see if I still think this - is Electioneering. Ideally it'd be Karma Police, Fitter Happier, Climbing Up the Walls, No Surprises, Lucky, The Tourist. Anyway, back to Karma Police. There's just such character in Thom's singing. And the song doesn't give a damn about rock norms. This is a band moving on. "For a minute there, I lost myself." Again, I rarely listen to the albums from before Kid A. This is so much better than I remember it, and I remember it very fondly.

12:21: Ha! I forgot I was listening to a rip of the very CD I used to own. And Karma Police skips where the CD was scratched. The nostalgia of remembered imperfection.

12:34: Yes, I don't think Electioneering fits. I remember not liking Climbing Up the Walls so much when I first had the album. But now, it's just so perfectly itself and creepy.

12:40: I still can't believe that No Suprises was basically the first take. Lucky starts as though it's the album closer. It sounds like a summation. "It's going to be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change." The little guitar breakdown near the end feels so right and interesting here, doesn't sound at all forced.


12:50: Meeting in the Aisle, Lull, A Reminder, Melatonin, Palo Alto, How I Made My Millions.

12:53: I'm up to Lull now, which is solid, if a bit standard for Radiohead. Melatonin and How I Made My Millions are two my favorite Radiohead songs. Radiohead B-sides would probably be my all-time favorite album if there had otherwise not been a Radiohead. And now up to A Reminder, which is a great song I guess I never listen to.

12:58: I'm not sure when I first heard Melatonin, but it wasn't until after my son was born. Maybe he was two? But "Don't forget that you are our son. Now, go back to bed." And the way the music so simply and earnestly marches lullaby-like. It's a secular prayer, a wish that resonated with me. Right up until "Death to all who stand in your way, my dear."

1:04: How I Made My Millions is right up there with the songs I most treasure. I read that this is Thom's demo, recorded at his house while his girlfriend can be heard unpacking groceries. "Let it fall." This song just feels like mournful yet joyous observation of life outside of itself - just let it. Anyway, I think different thoughts every time I hear it.

Kid A

1:12: The perfect album. The first time I heard the opening tones of Everything in Its Right Place, I was obsessed with Radiohead. Oddly, though, I didn't get this album when it came out in 2000. We'd moved to California for law school. I had a two-year-old, and my daughter would be born the month later. Money was tight, and there was no iTunes Store - and I didn't use Napster. So I just wasn't buying CDs around this time. I was listening to a lot of film music. And I think Magnolia, a PT Anderson film that looms large in my memory, came out the year before.

So it wasn't until we'd left California and moved to the East Coast that I, by chance I think, heard Kid A. That opening. I don't even know what to write. I've heard EEIRP and Kid A so many times, in so many contexts and emotional states.

Kid A, the track, is unlike anything I'd heard before. There's a more traditionally beatutiful song underneath the sonic treatment, but that treatment isn't obscuring - it's just perfect. "Standing in the shadows at the foot of my bed."

1:22: It defies explanation that this album became massively popular. I'm on The National Anthem now, and these just aren't the kinds of songs that you think would have mass appeal. But damn do they move me. And apparently many, many millions of others. This was the music I'd always wished other songs would be, shed of the guitar solo that was added because there was supposed to be a solo and shed of the standard form. How does one even describe what's so great about the ending of The National Anthem, the brass out of control but hitting all the right notes. Someone who also loved to hear the orchestra tune and sunk a little on hearing them start to play perfectly and formally, yes someone like that wrote these songs. And now How to Disappear Completely, the distillation of melody of dread that is a platform for one's own thoughts, how much less would this song be without the background drone? They got so much right on this.

1:32: Do you think some music exec listening to this for the first time and having heard the first four tracks was thinking and hoping, "Maybe there'll be guitars in Treefingers."

1:44: Reading old reviews of this album is hilarious. So many people rejected it. Crazy to think that it's now over fifteen years old. Idioteque is just starting - one of those that I knew instantly would be a favorite for a long time. I'd forgotten that I really like In Limbo, with its wandering notes, living in a fantasy. Curiously, it's Optimistic that seems ever so slightly out of place. I'm sure the label was thrilled to have something, anything, that could pass as a normal rock track. The album would work as well without it for me. "Here I'm allowed everything all of the time." Genius song, Idioteque, just works on every level.

1:55: So many details make these songs more than the sums of their parts. And this album so much more than the sum of its parts. Thom's repetition in the background for the last quarter of Morning Bell. And now Motion Picture Soundtrack, which just sounds like a closer. (And sounds a bit like what you'd have wished some Smashing Pumpkin song would have wound up. I forget the name of it.) "I think you're crazy, maybe." It's a band who, at this point, are just trying to make something great, as painful a process as it was. You can hear the purity of the motivation in every minute of this album.


2:00: True Love Waits (live). A straight-ahead acoustic ballad. "I'm not living. I'm just killing time." It works. This is one many fans have hoped would be finished in the studio. I also have a fan-made version that combines various live performances and an arpeggiated synth pattern that I really like. We'll see.


2:04: I actually think it was hearing my landlord's copy of Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box, the Amnesiac opener, sometime in 2003?, that instantly hooked me on Radiohead again. Maybe I got Amnesiac and Kid A at the same time after hearing this track. I think I bought them on the relatively new iTunes Store. My iTunes suggests it was December 2002. Oh well, whatever it was, there is so much going on and yet such simplicity to this first track. And then into Pyramid Song. There are fluttering strings behind the dominant piano. "I jumped in a river; what did I see?"

2:16: Pitchfork's (otherwise very positive) review of Amnesiac says this about Pulk/Pull: "Powered by a gritty industrial beat, the song's intentional abstractness, for the first time ever, seems forced and caricatured." No. Now, into You and Whose Army? Yep, this is a band that had a fairly obvious route to cashing in after OK Computer. And we get this. The distorted vocals, so devoid of any vanity. Everything is in the service of plumbing the depths of seemingly everything. Then that guitar lick that carries the drone of I Might Be Wrong. Have I told you how much I love this band?

2:25: Knives Out is the most accessible song on the album, where that word accessible just means, I guess, that you can play for it someone who listens to pop music without risk that they'll hurt you in order to turn the music off. But it's also terrific. That mix of incredibly dark lyrics, uptempo beat, somber and stretched out vocal, the kind of "this is life going by" guitar jangle, it's so much more because of the relation among the details that compose it.

2:37: The sounds on Hunting Bears, the subtle whoosing behind guitars whose delay and percussiveness create this tension. It's all in the timing of the elements on this one. I could listen to twenty minutes of this. Now Like Spinning Plates. Drawn from a backwards version of another song they'd been working on (I Will, which appear later), they then recorded some of the vocals and some other elements backwards. The whole thing has trademark Radiohead dread overlying melody. "While you make pretty speeches, I'm being cut to shreds." Ending: "And this just feels like spinning plates. My body is floating down the muddy river." And finally into Life in a Glasshouse, which just comes from nowhere, well, maybe some kinship with the chaotic brass in The National Anthem. But this is New Orleans jazz in a loose, sad, grand, let's have it out, final reckoning.


2:49: Now seven singles before the next album. And I rarely listen to these, unlike the post-OKC group. But you know what? The Amazing Sounds of Orgy is damned interesting and amazing. The deep, tunnel like bass (reminds me of Burn the Witch at the moment), and the almost rotating quality of the duh - da-da-da - duh - da-da-da - duh. So good.

2:54: Fast-Track - yep, I'm down with it. The blippingly fast vocal sample. Trans-Atlantic Drawl is one that I think I usually skip over. Listening with fresh ears, though. There's a wickedly heavy electric guitar carrying the track, but it doesn't go anywhere unexpected. Ha! Yes it does. Totally forgot the synth interlude 1t 1:50. I love this part! Ok, ok, this is a cool track. I guess you could make two classic albums of Radiohead B-sides. Ok, on to Kinetic, Worrywort, and Fog.

3:00: You know what's absolutely great that I've not listened to nearly enough: Kinetic. Philip Glass-like vocal patterns, synth patterns that serve a purpose. Percussion that says its own thing. Yep, this one I'll come back to.

3:10: Worrywort and Fog. Fog is one of those Radiohead songs that's heartbreaking even if you're not sure why. I've heard some people say it's about children growing up among and within war. Or about children growing into evil generally. On to the divisive Hail to the Thief.

Hail to the Thief

3:20: This has some of my favorite songs on it. But it's also one that I almost never listen to from beginning to end. And it has songs that have brilliant parts that I wish had not been joined with other parts. Everyone, even the band I think, thinks about whether the tracking might have been better. The funny thing is that in instance after instance what some fans say is wrong with the album is exactly what other fans love about it. The album, as an album, doesn't rise above its parts, but those parts are excellent. And one person's fix is another's marring.

Even the opener, 2+2=5, which I think is great, has kind of a standard rock jam near the end. Would it have been better arranged differently? Maybe it depends on your mood. And the "raindrops" repetition in Sit Down. Stand Up. is something that is at times just the right thing and at other times not. It's like I wrote earlier, the thing about Radiohead for me is how in so many cases it appears their judgment about what was good and what they'd cut or re-arrange from the music I grew up with is the same as mine. That we identify very similar qualities as important in music. But on this album, there are a few instances where I'd cut and pieces of music that I wish could stand on their own. (There, there, e.g.)

I just know that I deeply love so many things on this album. (The last two songs especially.)

3:31: I definitely like the back half of this album more than the front. I can appreciate Sail to the Moon, Backdrifts, and Go to Sleep, but they don't move me. Getting into Where I End and You Begin now.

3:38: Yes, Where I End and You Begin ("I will eat you alive.") and We Suck Young Blood are both excellent, though definitely different from the Kid A / Amnesiac vibe. The latter, though, has a lot in common with Life in a Glasshouse - but with a lot of fascinating ornamentation, for a spare yet rich sound.

3:43: I love The Gloaming. I love the title. I love the bleeps, bloops, wandering vocal, the "they will suck you down to the other side." And the fact that it leads into There, There. There, There is one of the all-time great Radiohead songs. And I love it, the lyrics "singing you to shipwreck," and "Just because you feel it, doesn't mean it's there." I just wish it ended around the three-minute mark. It's the first part that works so well, lyrically, sonically. The jammy part, not as much.

3:53: When I first heard that Like Spinning Plates was I Will run backwards (or at least based on it), I was, well, surprised. I love I Will, kind of in the way I love All I Need from In Rainbows. They're earnest and meaningful, not elliptical in a way that totally leaves you with your own thoughts - another quality I love about some RH songs. Now on to Punch Up at a Wedding, which is fine but is not my favorite. Next will be Myxomatosis, which many people love, but I haven't really, at least before. Looking forward to Scatterbrain and Wolf at the Door, which would be on my desert island disc.

3:59: Yeah, I love Myxomatosis sometimes. The out front overloaded blasting line that carries through right up to the "I don't know..." part. And the synths working against the rest of the song. It feels like being lost and in trouble. Ok, Scatterbrain, which is just beautiful. I'll never understand why some fans don't like it. The vocals are set as if they're blown around, vulnerability and violence and, again, being lost. "I'm walking out in a force ten gale. Birds thrown around, bullets for hail. The roof is pulling off by its fingernails. Your voice is rapping at my window sill." It's one of those RH songs that feels inevitable and drives right through you. "Somewhere I'm not Scatterbrain."

4:04: But for the fact that I love Videotape so much, I'd confidently say that Wolf at the Door is the greatest close of an album ever. Thom Yorke channels insanity and violence in a torrent of words. And the music doesn't let you off the ride. It feels like something smashing and not stopping. "I wish you'd get up get over. Get up get over and turn the tape off."


4:07: Gagging Order, I Am Citizen Insane, Paperbag Writer, Where Bluebirds Fly

4:09: I don't think I'd heard Gagging Order before hearing it on Jaydiohead (the Jay Z / Radiohead mashup). But what a simple and beautiful song. And the dread is there: "A couple more for breakfast. A little more for tea. Just to take the edge off." For me, it's someone who wants to be left alone to their drugs, no matter the inevitability of death. "Move along. There's nothing left to see. Just a body. Nothing left to see." Citizen Insance is a nice instrumental.

4:22: I Am a Wicked Child doesn't do anything for me. Paperbag Writer is fine. Where Bluebirds Fly is probably the most interesting of the three, all rhythm and bleeps and bloops, with synth layering. After this song, it's on to In Rainbows.

In Rainbows

4:30: October 10, 2007, my kids were 9 and about to turn 7. And I was celebrating Radiohead Day and blasting In Rainbows while we were having breakfast and getting ready for school. By this point, my taste had very much turned to experimental music and modern classical. Looking back, I see we also listened to a lot of Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, and Mozart (with whom my daughter was obsessed). REM Day (Accelerate) would happen the next year.

4:32: As much as I love this album, I don't love Bodysnatchers. It's fine, but the rest I absolutely love. So there's that. There is, though, a part of it I like, the part at 2:15 with the soaring but backgrounded guitar. Yeah, this is good.

4:38: I just don't see how it would be possible to dislike Nude. When we get to Weird Fishes, the whole vibe is very relaxed and yet still intense. I'm loving this so much right now. "In the deepest ocean. The bottom of the Sea. Your eyes..."

4:51: Such a strong album. If I had it my way, I might send All I Need into Reckoner and drop Faust Arp. But when Last Flowers is a B side, you know there's a plethora of material. What's striking me again is just how restrained it all is, especially compared to Hail to the Thief. I mean, there are strings and lots more going on, but All I Need and Reckoner have a pure and unadorned sound.

5:00: I almost always skip over House of Cards. Listening to it, I wonder if it's because it's so restrained that there's not enough musically interesting to me and nothing emotionally compelling even if simple? Or is it just that I'm impatient for the last two songs? As with Hail to the Thief, I often listen just to the last two songs. Jigsaw Falling Into Place. "Come on and let it out ..." and then the part after "dance, dance, dance." "Not just once..." This whole part. Wow.

5:07: I guess Videotape is probably my favorite Radiohead song. The themes of comprehending death, clinging, being satisfied, these I keep turning over. And this deceptively simple but powerful song is always there. I reach for it often. And I feel less alone.

In Ranbows Disc 2

5:18: When I first heard disc two, I was blown away that the songs were easily good enough to compose another album. It may have been the first set of Radiohead B sides I'd heard. Go Slowly is beautiful. Last Flowers is transcendent, and I wish it could have found its way into the In Rainbows track listing. "It's too much. Too bright. Too powerful." I have a literal interpretation of what's going on in this song in which an elderly person can't keep up and the world is caving in and the appliances and everything have gone beserk. But I also hear in it the basic question: how do we cope with our reality? I love it. Listened to it over and over again over the years.

5:25: Up on the Ladder is the perfect song to follow Last Flowers, as it, musically, creates tension in an opposite manner. Still classic Radiohead, but it layers in sound upon sound, pulls them away, builds them in again. "Snake charming" is a lyric and the feeling. It has that elevating synth sound that deepens the mood.

5:34: I'm not a huge fan of Bangers and Mash, which just ended. 4 Minute Warning is a nice step-down. Funny because I can't think of another Radiohead song like it. I keep thinking it reminds me of something else. Sounds like a closer, though.


5:37: Unravel by Björk is an amazing song. And this cover was a great surprise. But not, because it's a great song. "The devil collects it. With a grin."

5:45: These Are My Twisted Words is a Radiohead jam, easy to listen to and to like but hard to love. (A little of Hunting Bears in the guitar.)

5:49: Last single before The King of Limbs is Harry Patch, which might have been released before These Are My Twisted Words. I love Jonny's film work for PT Anderson and had listened many times over to the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood when this was released. I was excited to hear the string arrangement - with the undertone of dread recalling How to Disappear Completely. But then come beautiful cycles of strings coming in waves, over which Thom sings in a high falsetto. The lyrics are the words of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches in World War I. I'm taken back to the first time I heard The Final Cut. And the song itself sounds like a field of poppies. This is among my three favorite Radiohead songs.

The King of Limbs

5:53: This album stands in such contrast to In Rainbows for me. I absolutely love it. But Radiohead Day for this album came at a time when my kids were a bit older and when I was absorbed in a research project about which I was passionate. I remember listening to this and the related singles on repeat as I typed and typed. Bloom is magnificent. A track with so much going on that I hear new things, new ways to hear it all the time. Thom Yorke performed a solo piano version at Pathways to Paris last fall that is well worth checking out. Look it up on YouTube or soundcloud.

5:59: Mr. Magpie is one I'd replace. I've never connected with it like I have with The Butcher and Staircase, which followed as singles. What am I missing in it? The other song I'd replace, although I'll give it a fresh listen when it comes up, is fan-favorite Separator. It may be the only Radiohead closer that I like significantly less than other tracks on the album.

6:06: Little by Little feels too easy. Of course I'm going to like this song, and I feel like they could write songs like this by the gross. It's the most Radiohead-y song on the album. And I love it. Then we get to Feral, which gets more interesting and affecting with each listen.

6:19: The subdued but vital feel of the Lotus Flower / Codex /Give up the Ghost tracks is palpable. It transports me back to a particular place, particular struggles. And it best encpasulates the organic themes of the album. Give up the Ghost in particular got its hooks in me when I first saw a solo performance by Thom on YouTube. I find myself having it on the musical loop in my mind, sometimes humming it. It's rich with yearning, with a sense of wanting something more, but more real. "Don't haunt me."

6:25: What do I not get about Separator? I like it, but I don't love it the way some seem to. And I love this album. So I don't know. I do love the light touch of the guitar at the end, at the "if you think this over then you're wrong."


6:30: Supercollider, The Butcher, The Daily Mail, Staircase, Spectre

6:33: I was one of the poor fools hoping for an Amnesiac for the King of Limbs. We didn't get it, but we did get some finished singles. Several were previewed in solo shows by Thom. Supercollider was one, which I'm not sure if I prefer just on piano or in this produced version. It's interesting. The Butcher, though, is one of those songs that makes me wonder how they do it. So much to think about on that one.

6:44: The Daily Mail and Staircase. Staircase was a song I fell in love with after seeing a video of Thom performing it on solo guitar - I think in LA. It's a beautiful version that I like a little more than this live from the basement version. I listened to this on repeat while working in March 2011. "A magnetic pull." "Let me take control." This song deserves more. Just one more song after this.

6:50: Spectre. Well this was a surprise. Maybe the most beautiful, orchestral Radiohead song yet. It's a perfect Bond theme, evoking Nobody Does It Better, which Radiohead have covered and which was always a favorite of mine. The vocals are sublime. And the way the melody and strings are brought together in a fully realized idea. It sounds more mature and melodically interesting than much they'd done before. My excitement for the new album went through the roof after hearing this.

6:53: And that's it. Yes, I've heard Burn the Witch and Daydreaming, and, yes, they're both amazing. But I'm trying my best not to listen to them too much before the album drops tomorrow. Admittedly, I've failed at that. I've probably listened to BTW over a hundred times, and a couple dozen for Daydreaming. Anyway, I was hoping to capture something of what it's meant to me to age with this band. But I don't know if I've done that. What's amazing to me is just how vital they are now. I think their best work is ahead of them, mostly because they want it to be.

Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

On the very first listen, Thom Yorke's new album, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes may strike you as, well not exactly insubstantial and not exactly monotonous, but just kind of there, understated, having a continuity and momentum without clear purpose. For my part, I couldn't get over the fact that I was listening to a new Thom Yorke album that I had no idea was coming. But if you're not a fan, I can see how you might listen and wonder what all the fuss is about. It's a work that greatly benefits from repeated listenings.

Several days in, and I just keep repeating it. What seemed initially understated and perhaps even a bit aimless has proved to have remarkable qualities of cohesion and of clarity, moreso I think than any other Yorke or Radiohead album. It's not about melodies you hum, though I sometimes hum the weirdest things, but musical ideas you crave to experience again and again. Truth Ray may be the first to haunt your thoughts. At least it was for me. Its beauty is so unusual but also visceral, and I find myself just wanting to listen to it -- but wanting to hear it in the context of the whole album, not skipping anything, thinking in the middle of Pink Section that this is the perfect thing to be hearing right now, at this moment.

Everyone is different. We are each the ideal readers and listeners for particular artists. Thom Yorke is one of the creators of the soundtrack of my life, the one I carry in my head wherever I go. To know others' soundtracks is to know a little of others' minds.

My New Favorite Things

Here’s my first annual list of great things that were new to me in 2013 – and also Arsenal. They are in no particular order. There were other great things. I forgot them.

  • Theater Is EvilMusic – Amanda Palmer’s crowd-sourced album. Honestly, I can’t remember whether I started listening last fall or after the first of the year. It was only later that I discovered she had an album of ukelele covers of Radiohead songs.
  • Judge John HodgmanPodcast – Podcasts are on my short list of things poised to get much bigger. This is one of the best.
  • Flophouse PodcastPodcast – One of the few things that makes me laugh out loud involuntarily, even with headphones and even if I’m around other people and should be quiet. Not safe for work, family, or anywhere really. Let’s just say it’s totally unsafe.
  • Anything with John Siracusa – A cheat, but John is awesome, so ...
  • The WirecutterWebsite – Now see, I’m sure I was first turned on to this site in 2012, but I don’t remember using it much until this year. Anyway, this is the review site for me. It just tells you flat out what it thinks is the best product in a given category. The best TV, the best projector, the best wireless router, the best juicer, the best standing desk, the best remote, you get the idea. They recently launched The Sweethome, which is the same concept but for home supplies.
  • Upstream Color – Movie – Unbelievably great film. Immediately earned a place next to Shutter Island. Just watch it on iTunes or Netflix. There are many interesting articles on the film, but do yourself a favor and see it before reading anything.
  • LeviathanMovie – The best depiction of the otherworldliness of our world I’ve seen in awhile. (I guess Gravity, which was amazing for some of the same reasons, should be mentioned here.) It is, at least in form, a documentary set on board several New England commercial fishing vessels. It is so disorienting that I felt like I was seeing this human activity from the perspective of a non-human. Like seeing ourselves as we really are, for the first time. Worth seeing on a large screen but not easy viewing.
  • Yeezus (asterisk) – Music – Asterisk because, well, I just don’t completely understand it. If it means what I think it means, it’s outrageously great. If it means what it says, not so much. Let’s be clear though: the sonic achievement here is undeniable. I pretty much agree with most of Lou Reed’s review, which is how I was first turned on to it. As Reed wrote: “There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit.” But there’s more to it than that. I Am a God, in particular, suggests toward its end at an understanding that the hormonally driven understanding of life, living as the sequelae of the sexual urge, leads inevitably to a profound terror. But if the work as a whole doesn’t rise above its literal content – sex, money, power, women as units of currency in a world of lizard-brained men – it’s hard for me to enjoy it. And yet, it’s terrific, even if it’s not more than profane dadaism.
  • AmokMusic – It’s Thom Yorke doing new and interesting things, so obviously.
  • Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four SeasonsMusic – Beautiful. Even if you don’t like Vivaldi, do yourself the favor of listening to the first fifteen minutes. Here’s a live performance.
  • Kerbal Space ProgramVideogame – Now here is something new. It’s a videogame in which you assemble rockets and explore a solar system. But not in a fake videogame way – no, using real orbital mechanics. You’ll learn what delta-v is, when you should burn at periapsis. You’ll feel elated at mastering a lunar mission and landing your little Kerbal astronaut(s) on another world. You’ll find unexpected joy in orbital rendezvous and refueling. You’ll grasp immediately the untold promise of educating kids (and ourselves!) with the next iteration of knowledge container, the escape of our worldly understanding from thinly sliced bits of amalgamated tree residue.
  • Blood MeridianBook – Kind of a cheat, because I’m in the middle of it now. I’ve never read Cormack McCarthy. But I was profoundly affected on seeing The Road. I watched it alone in my dark basement, and all I wanted to do after finishing was to go into the sunshine and hug my son. (Amazon link, but I’m not taking an affiliate cut.)
  • Arsenal – Sporting Franchise – A serious cheat, because I’ve been a fan since way back in ... 2009? Better late than never.
  • GlassboardApp and Web Service – Also not new to me in 2013. But I first put it into real use earlier this year. This app is like a private Facebook, with status updates, comments, and file sharing. You can make a board and invite others. You all see everything on the board, but no one else does. Great idea, and I hope they weather the transition in ownership, on which I hope to hear news soon.
  • Ok, one bit of self-promotion ... ok, maybe two – though I get nothing tangible for either. This book, to which I contributed a chapter I actually like (maybe I’m the only one), is now on sale from Cambridge University Press and should go on sale at Amazon soon (where you can even now look inside and see my opening pages). Who among us is uninterested in a $100 book about the public-private distinction in law? No one!
  • And, finally, an interesting Facebook discussion led to an idea that led to an article that led to a collaboration that led to this piece on gun protests in Slate, authored by the inestimably generous Dahlia Lithwick and me.

That’s all I remember. I’m sure there was much, much more. A friend reminded me today that I used to make mix tapes in middle school. So, I’ll leave it with a playlist I made.

In Defense of Titanic

Titanic is a movie about what it means to save someone and what it means to be saved.  It’s a cartoon, yes, the characters archetypes, if not quite caricatures.  And it’s otherwise easy for some to hate.  In fact, it seems fashionable to show disdain for it.  Doing so misses something important about our openness to art, defined simply as the portrayal, rather than raw transmission, of ideas.  For me a film is a success if it’s authentic and provides a new space, or maybe a new reason, to turn over thoughts.  Is someone actually trying to tell me something, and have they provided space for me — emotionally, intellectually, whatever — to think and feel?  Titanic does.

It wouldn’t be hard to describe the film in an unflattering way:  “A teenaged brat, who all too typically has issues with a controlling mother, gives everything up for a dashing young free spirit who could be a boy-band member and who takes her innocence and saves her life.  The tragedy of the Titanic itself is both eye candy and a mere backdrop for teenagers in love.  There is a ridiculously stereotypical and unredeemable villain and even a chase scene involving a gun.  The dialogue fails to develop instances of complex and real human beings.”

All these things are somewhat true but miss the point.  The cartoon characters that compose the plot are isolations of human tendencies — not false so much as incomplete.  The film is a sketch of emotions and our own conflicting ambitions cast over a transformative event.  The sinking is this one, small funnel through which everything that was before swirls downward to a point, and from which everything emerges as a gift and a matter of pure choice.

It’s not that Titanic makes us actually fret over how to balance comfort and security (Rose’s beginning) against daring, truth, and intentional living (Rose’s end).  No, Cameron never makes us really feel that Rose is throwing away anything important when she leaves wealth and status behind.  Even when she climbs back on board the sinking ship, we surely admire it.  Internal, ethical struggle is not what this movie is about.

One could make a wonderful film that captures the essence of that dilemma, that makes the viewer feel the torment of trading away comfort for freedom.  An easy lesson in the abstract, the singular nature of life and the importance of mustering the courage to throw off our shackles could, in the hands of committed actors, writers, and a director, be felt as horrifically difficult and agonizing.  The obvious abstract lesson, glorified in many lesser films, could be cinematically rendered to show the internal conflict of fear, logic, hope, and desperation that rages in our meat-bound brains.  But Titanic is not a lesser film for not doing this.  

The beauty of the film lies in the passion of its large scale historical depiction and in the very small scale revolution it worked in the lives of Jack and Rose. Rose saved Jack as much as Jack saved Rose.  And against the epic backdrop of the sinking of a massive ship, the event that just makes you wonder what you’d do at the end of all things when all the usual rules die away, we appreciate a life well-lived as consisting both of freedom and of freely chosen but deeply felt obligation.

Freedom and obligation, each seems to be the other’s absence.  That’s true of course. I’m free to choose if I’m not obligated to make a particular choice. And I’m obligated if I’m not entirely free.  But as the opposing forces of the electron and proton draw them together to create the matter of our world, simultaneous obligations and freedoms are essential to the complete human being. 

Our main characters arrive on Titanic as distillations of these pure states.  Jack, seemingly very happy to drift through life beholden to no one, relishes adventure and not knowing even where he will next sleep.  He is the embodiment of the spirit we long for when obligation piles up into a twisted mass of metal, looming large as fully ground and seized gears.  Who wouldn’t want to be absolutely free of obligations?  Happiness, as Hitchcock said, is a “clear horizon.”

Rose arrives with the opportunity to want for nothing.  She is unburdened of choice.  She need have no fear of the panoply of acute and very real dangers that have threatened all the beings from whom she is descended, the poverty, the not knowing, the struggle, the warring tribes, the famine, the battle for survival and violence of the primordial pools.  Her unprecedented security would come at the price of an obligation to accept her place in the complex social structure that makes it possible.  The Jewel of the Sea is everything most people seem to desire all their lives, but it is locked in a box, the manifestation of the quid pro quo. (And the jewel, like the unobtainium in the equally misunderstood Avatar, changes its meaning as the characters change.)

Jack and Rose are incomplete.  Anyone who has experienced the joy of children, of family, of the best of friends, and of honest love can intuitively understand how obligation can enrich a life.  It’s the awesome power of voluntary obligation, to live in part for someone else, that Rose gave Jack.  The special kind of saving that we provide one another in little bits over the course of our lives, it was all channeled into a few hours during which Jack was himself saved by saving Rose.  It probably sounds corny, but I was moved watching Jack find the worth of that something worth dying for.

So too, anyone who has spent weeks in the wilderness, climbing high peaks, crossing deserts, or even lounging on exotic shores understands the kinetic energy of freedom felt in the gut.  As I write this, I’m flying over the Arizona desert, desperately longing to be exploring canyons and climbing mountains, to be in my sleeping bag with hood drawn and looking up at my own breath and the slow stars that are satellites in the pure, dark sky.  One image I always remember from Titanic is the photograph of a young but emancipated Rose in a pilot’s outfit, standing next to a plane.  Also, in that postscript of a scene, ranging over Rose’s memories, there are all around reminders of the family she later made and the implicit constraints and obligations that came with that.  Not least of all these is her own aged body.  Sure, these are symbols, and they are cliché.  But that doesn’t make it false: “This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”

That is my Titanic.  Yes, it’s the backdropped story of hubris, adventure, and terror.  It isn’t Shutter Island. But there at its core is an opportunity for me to think, on a more emotional level, of the integral values that make this precious and all-too-short life worth living.