Radiohead: Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien. Photo by Tom Sheehan. Courtesy of Capitol Records.
At the end of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is an indelibly resonant moment when the alien mothership lands. The first to leave the ship are not aliens, but the pilots who’ve supposedly been lost at sea, whereabouts unknown for decades—Ah!, so that’s where they’ve been all this time! This fanciful answer to the question of what happened to all of those “Bermuda Triangle” victims engenders for me a sense of deep wonder. The same kind of feeling evoked by works such as The Wizard of Oz, Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Alice in Wonderland, The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Lord of The Rings, and Prince before he became unpronounceable. I have been despairing of late because that feeling of wonder and imagination has been singularly lacking in popular music; everything seems predetermined and calculated, nothing left to chance, all the emotions canned and carefully designed. It is not that I don’t like current Pop, I just hate knowing when my buttons are being pushed.
Two recent exceptions that have revitalized my faith in the possibilities inherent in Pop music are Radiohead’s remarkable OK Computer and Bob Dylan’s wonderful Time Out Of Mind: two records that couldn’t be more different and yet more in sync.
Radiohead confronts the lonely strangeness of the modern world head-on and sideways. Not shying away from the gorgeous brutality of highway wreckage in “Airbag,” to chronicling the relentless grind of everyday mindless drudgery in “No surprises,” they manage to sound fresh and unhackneyed. It is impossible to overstate the sonic beauty of this record whose influences range from Miles Davis to Led Zeppelin. My favorite cut on this, their third release, is an oblique homage to Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Alien”: the title a riff on Dylan’s classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that finds its narrator living “in a town where you can’t smell a thing, you watch your feet for cracks in the pavement.”
Bob Dylan’s latest recording Time Out Of Mind finds him mapping difficult territory, that of his own ravaged and wounded heart. Dan Lanois’s minimal yet intuitive production is reminiscent of “Nashville Skyline,” but only superficially; Time Out Of Mind has many more subtle details to savor. In song after song Dylan walks fearlessly through the valley of mortality and hopeless love. He spares nothing and no one, least of all himself. This is Dylan’s most ruthlessly clear, honest, and joyful record in years. Anyone who’s lost their heart foolishly, painfully to love will find songs such as “Standing in the Doorway” almost unbearable to listen to. That’s what makes it so vital, alive, and wonderful.
Both OK Computer and Time Out Of Mind share a deep yearning for contact: human, alien, or divine. Although they use different methods, they both achieve remarkable success as bodies of work from artists who live and dream their experiences as opposed to calculating their effects.
OK Computer is available on Capitol Records.
Time Out Of Mind is available on Columbia.