"How to Disappear Completely" / "Treefingers"
#4 “How to Disappear Completely”
Brace yourself for conceptual whiplash, people younger than me: in 1999 I was so obsessed with my fan site-assembled mishmash of Radiohead B-sides, overseas bonus tracks, early material, and live recordings that I temporarily installed an extra hard drive so that I could pass a friend those songs in some kind of .OGG format (because MP3 wasn’t always the default file choice) for him to burn me an audio CD at his dad’s computer store, the first burned CD I’d ever seen; all because I couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to play those songs on my Discman. I mention the logistics of hearing “How to Disappear Completely” for the first time because, as much as everyone talks about Kid A as some sort of sui generis Dawn of a New Era, the album was rooted in a very weird, transitional era for music fans.
I wish I still had that CD; I’ve never tracked down the embryonic, live “How to Disappear Completely” that ended it. You can find many gorgeous live renditions on YouTube, but I’m pretty sure that the version I had lacked the swooning, oceanic depths of the recorded version and subsequent live performances (a sound the band has revisited on “Pyramid Song” and “Sail to the Moon,” but never with quite the same blackly feverish intensity). Instead, the version I had was mostly acoustic guitar; hearing the synthetic whalesong of the album version reverberate through the frame of the car I was in at the time, driving down a country road in the dark, was a moment of startling revelation. There may have been leaks, but I was unaware of them. These days, when friends deliberately avoid listening to a keenly anticipated release until they can buy the physical album, I always think back to that first listen in the car.
But the thing about the ghostly, keening beauty of “How to Disappear Completely”, a beauty that was born out of Thom Yorke’s inability to process the huge crowds Radiohead was playing in front of, a beauty diametrically opposed to the “strobe lights and blown speakers” the narrator needs to escape from, is that such a desperate and claustrophobic song is actually uplifting. “That there / That’s not me” isn’t exactly the most optimistic beginning, and certainly there’s an edge of anguish to the repeated calls of “I’m not here / This isn’t happening”, but “How to Disappear Completely” (named, incidentally, after this book) is a song caught at the precise midpoint between panic and exultation, between vertigo and flight; a song that recognizes and appreciates the terrifying joy and ghastly freedom of leaving everything behind. If you’re a bad place, “I’m not here” can be reassuring, even defiant; in other circumstances the song can play out as anything from melancholy to nightmarish.
Near the end of the song, after singing the last actual lyrics, Thom Yorke continues to wail wordlessly as the string arrangement twists into a warped, yawning abyss around and under his voice; it feels like the song is closing in on you, like some sort of terminal point is being reached. It sounds as if the song must end this way, by swallowing the singer. And then, as Yorke continues on without pause or quaver, the strings recede sharply, then surge in again, restored to their original brightness, the vocals turned into a clarion call where moments before they’d been a drowning man. “How to Disappear Completely” works equally well in either mode; more importantly, it inhabits both at the same time.
Much in the fashion of David Bowie’s work with Brian Eno on 1977’s Low (“Warszawa”, “Subterraneans”), Radiohead’s “Treefingers” is a culmination of Kid A‘s angst put softly into water, bathed and echoed, and made sublime. “Treefingers” is an ambient piece that sings unlike its counterparts on the album, having been written first by Ed O’Brien as a guitar solo then processed no doubt through some vast Eventide processor or Pro-Tools plug-in before emerging as its strange, liquid self.
The track is likely born out of Radiohead’s then-evident interest in Warp Records, the ‘90s birth of IDM, and artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Autechre. “Treefingers” most resembles, of these big-names, Aphex Twin’s work on Selected Ambient Works Volume II, a massive double-vinyl collection of spare and mostly beatless synthesized compositions, some carried by synth washes or simple wind chimes clattered somewhere in Twin’s native Cornwall. This album, sometimes called SAW2, bristles the new age trappings of most of its ambient-leaning ilk and plays much like a tuneful Lustmord caught easing out of his dark ambient safe-zone. There is no direct correlation between SAW2‘s tracks and “Treefingers”, but I should hope that Greenwood et al. found it at the least to have been of commensurate influence when processing O’Brien’s guitar noodling.
SAW 2 is an album built with contributions of synaesthesia, or “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body,” which is very much a suitable way to perceive “Treefingers” and, for that matter, many of Radiohead’s other ambient attempts. This, barring its heavy low-frequency filtering, surely is part of the reason that “Treefingers” is so oft described as sounding like it was recorded underwater. The song’s simple structure, aleatoric-seeming chordal mood, and blossoming progression could be the attributions of an artist interpreting the soft sound as images of stars seen from beneath a waterline, moving shapes across the sky, planes at night, the way water reflects the moon, ripples on a pond surface, bright and falling lights, and rain on lone city streets. “Treefingers” is cast outside of Kid A‘s jazz-laden, percussive stature, and it exists somewhere in the not-so-barren outland.