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Radiohead’s Revolutionary Rhetoric

By Alex C. Nunnelly, Crimson Staff Writer

It was with a growing sense of apprehension that I approached a beat-in plastic newspaper dispenser to grab a copy of “The Universal Sigh” last Tuesday. The newspaper, Radiohead’s contribution to the underground literary scene is a potentially embarrassing, orgiastic almanac filled with disjointed poems and Gonzo-inspired illustrations. The paper seems to make an attempt at universal—or at least adolescent—consolation through a neo-Thoreauvian contemplation of nature and spirit. As I scanned the page, I breathed a sigh of relief; it’s actually pretty good.

In their paper, Radiohead cross a smattering of political and social commentary to interesting effect. They present their concerns through a tessellation of vibrant descriptions and intricate word play. They emphasize the spiritual rejuvenation of nature and the soul-crushing effects of society—they cast civilization as a placebo for a diseased human spirit. “The Universal Sigh” continually drives home the urgency of our situation, and consequently stresses the importance of further reading and writing regarding the subject: “Before we turn to ash with a lightness of touch, unwrap this page in me—scatter the ink,” frontman Thom Yorke writes.

Coupled with the release of their most recent album, “The King of Limbs,” “The Universal Sigh” provides a mildly cohesive set of short stories, one-liners, and suggestively oblique statements that, while somewhat overdone, manage to balance melodramatic allegories with poignant commentary. Throughout the paper, Radiohead takes on the role of a Pied Piper-like minstrel attempting to lead its audience away from the seductive evils of modern life towards reason and tranquility. In this manner, Radiohead presents themselves as ‘shamans’ of sorts for the ailing modern human condition, spiritual doctors providing a “tonic for the human spirit” in the form of “songlines” at the “wildest pitch.” While scanning the paper, one can certainly imagine a soundtrack of “songlines” from “Kid A” or “The King of Limbs” humming in the background.

Accompanying Radiohead-generated content is the work of a number of contributing and equally inspired writers whose more formal and literary short vignettes contrast well with Yorke’s abstract, imaginative, and schizophrenic phrases and pseudo-psalms. In their spreads, Robert Macfarlane, Jay Griffiths, and Stanley Donwood each provide their own anecdotes and meditations on forests—a motif throughout the paper—with seemingly autobiographical stories, personal commentary on the experiences, and revelations that are possible in the woods. Whether it is represented through the climbing of trees or the imbibing of Amazonian witch doctor brews, the forest—and nature in general—is portrayed as a panacea for the ails of civilization. As MacFarlane writes, the woods may “defray[ ] the city’s claims on me,” or as Griffiths puts it, “Our minds need what is wild, that unmistakable, unforgettable, elemental thing, wildness the universal songline, sung in green gold which we recognize the moment we hear it.” While the theme grows tired through constant rehashing, these accounts are gripping, and they provide ideas and considerations that, while not wholly original, are placed in a pleasing context of art and alliterative double-takes. We are in need of a revitalizing, the paper tells us. And, presumably, Radiohead may be the source of it.

With “The Universal Sigh,” Radiohead adopts a much more aggressive artistic persona, one that expands their realm of expression from airwaves to print. Yet, in generating all the proverbs in “The Universal Sigh,” Radiohead gives a written guide to the long-established rhythms and themes of their beloved music. While it may be said that this edition is merely a covert form of advertising, “The Universal Sigh” seems to be more than just publicity. Though it certainly serves to promote their very quietly released album, it is capable of standing by itself as a piece of art—or at least a souvenir that needn’t be continually contextualized with the LP.

It seems fitting that Radiohead should provide this piece—their considerations of civilization’s ails—in the form of a newspaper, a dying form of communication itself. Ironically, although they emphasize the need to rescue our forests and embrace the trees, Radiohead has chopped quite a few down for the global publication of their project, but perhaps they construe it as a necessary evil. Still, “The Universal Sigh” is a pleasing half-an-hour’s worth of reading, potentially capable of opening minds, or at least allowing the consideration of larger ideas and worries than biweekly exams or other collegiate woes. Though it is no gospel of our time, “The Universal Sigh” succeeds in construing Radiohead’s traditional message in a more visual, literary form, and in a media usually not associated with the music industry. Scatter the ink.

—Staff writer Alexander C. Nunnelly  can be reached at alexandernunnelly@college.harvard.edu.

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