Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! And in honor of the event, here’s an Irishman covering a Radiohead song.
I totally missed Radiohead as their albums were coming out. I’m sure I heard some of the songs, but I guess they didn’t connect. I’ve since come to acknowledge they are pretty great, but they do seem a little like broccoli, yeah, good for me, all right, all right. (I feel the same way about Beck.) On the other hand I love some of cover versions I’ve heard, like Jamie Cullum’s “High and Dry” and Gillian Welch’s “Black Star” and Lori Mckenna’s amazing “Fake Plastic Trees” and this one.
This song is widely considered to be about suburban complacency, but I hear something weightier (perhaps because I am a complacent suburbanite). It seems to me like the prettiest suicide note ever composed, especially in this hushed, acoustic version of Luka’s. The first two verses read like a parody of a truly depressed person struggling to answer the question “What’s bothering you?”: “I don’t know, the hard facts of my life, and my job is killing me, and you don’t look so happy yourself, you know, and how about the government, don’t they suck?” He could as well say the color of the sky or last night’s TV line-up, despair is the great leveller, the great deadener, all of these things register equally, random glimpses in the fog. The singer reaches a conclusion:
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake and some carbon monoxide
No alarms and no suprises…
Some people hear “carbon monoxide” as referring to driving a car or breathing the rancid air of the city, but I see a guy shutting the garage door and starting his car, leaning back in the driver’s seat and inhaling deeply.
The next verse (two lines, barely a verse, the song is langourous and breathless at the same time) reinforce this for me, as the singer talks about this being this song being his “final fit,” his “final bellyache”: the word bellyache here is just great songwriting, so unexpected, a moment of grim humor and grimmer self-awareness. This person is aware of how small his complaints seem in comparison to the act he’s contemplating, but it’s not enough to stop him from doing it.
Then the final, non-sequitery verse:
Such a pretty house
Such a pretty garden…
Again, some interpret this as the singer settling for the solace of conspicuous consumption, but I hear it as the last benediction of someone about to end it all, a statement of affection for the world that only his imminent leaving of it allows him.
At the end of this version of the song, after the “no alarms and no suprises” chorus, Luka sings the word “silent” twice, the second time in a falsetto that sounds like a fading into the void. If the song ended there, I’d think the singer had actually gone through with it, was actually dead. But then Luka speaks the word “please,” and the plaintiveness of it makes me wonder if instead of a song about suicide this is a song about using the prospect of suicide to sustain yourself, about a longing for oblivion as a way of life.
Which puts me in mind of another Irishman, Samuel Beckett: though less “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” than “Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on.” Such a pretty song, such a paralyzing life view…