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. Ed O’Brien wrote it first 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 1990s birth of IDM, and artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Autechre. “Treefingers” most resembles 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 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”. That’s 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. — Jason Cook