Sunday, 29 June 2008

Let's Get Literal! Let's Get Suggestive!

Radiohead -- 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi'

The lyrics point to an ocean's deepest depths, but the music sounds more like a gentle waterfall -- the 'arpeggi' of the title cascade down on top of each other, and when Thom Yorke starts to sing his words add to the stream of abstraction:

In the deepest ocean
Bottom of the sea
Your eyes
They turn me
Why should i stay here?
Why should i stay?
I'd be crazy not to follow

Your eyes

They turn me
Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
The meaning is clear, but the language is as expressive as the trickling guitar lines or the wordless backing vocals: I need to get out, and I will follow you to do so even if it leads me over the edge. This feeling intensifies at the point where the guitar lines seem to double their speed and purpose, the trickle becoming a powerful stream. Yorke's words take on an air of justification ("Everybody leaves/If they get the chance") and then... there's no stream anymore, only little bubbles of sound and the "worms/And weird fishes" that haunt the depths.

Before the titular fishes can do too much damage to Our Hero, however, the music kicks back in, but it's different now, more rhythmic and bass-driven. Indeed, the song actually grooves in its last segment, and the lyrics become driven too, with Yorke's voice dropping lower and sounding both frazzled and determined:

I'll hit the bottom
Hit the bottom and escape
I'll hit the bottom
Hit the bottom to escape

And then it's over, but is the 'escape' the voice achieves true escape or the escape of a man who actually sits cracked and bloodied in the torturer's chair? It's hard to say -- as with the rest of the song, this climax is more about specific sounds and general sentiments than narrative detail, a great torrent of dazed, dreamlike beauty that stops just when you think it might get too much.

Ghostface Killah -- 'Underwater'

This Ghostface number is much more literal and descriptive, even though its content is probably even more ridiculous. Shit, at one point, Ghost goes from talking about Mermaids with Gucci bags to describing "Spongebob in the Bently Coupe/ Banging the Isleys" in a matter of seconds.

Its this clear-headed approach to the preposterous that gives 'Underwater' its power -- the music matches the title-to-song connectivity of 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' by flooding the sensuous flute sample with burbling water sounds, and Ghostface sounds perfectly at home in this imaginary environment. Indeed, his journey towards underwater transcendence is completely unmarred by the worry that characterises Yorke's vocal performance. As such, it comes off more like a supernaturally detailed and compelling dream, one that you were totally amazed by and detached from at the same time.

Taken in the context of its parent album Fishscale, this surrealised calm makes a lot of sense. 'Underwater' arrives near the end of a record full of gang warfare and romantic strife, and suggests a sort of Little Nemo-esque oblivion that seems quite pleasing, if only for a change of pace, a rest from the constant flux of emotions.

What's remarkable here is not that Ghostface's way with verbal detail is better than Radiohead's wonderfully harmonised disassociation or vice versa, but rather that these songs represent two equally brilliant approaches to conceptual madness. 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' and 'Underwater' are connected on the level of general conceit, and are both notable for being richer, stranger and more suggestive than the work of either artists' contemporaries. What can I say, I'm a sucker for music that shows some imagination, no matter how it's realised.

There's more than one way to heaven, just like there's more than one way to hell -- just remember to pay attention to what you're doing and how, or you'll end up at the bottom of the sea getting eaten alive, or with a six hundred word essay that bears no resemblance to what really went on.

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