Photo by M. Alexander Weber
It’s approaching 10 PM at Reykjavik’s Secret Solstice festival, though you can’t really tell. At this time of year, the sun doesn't set so much as it teases the horizon, suggestions of a nighttime that never comes. It’s bleak and surreal and exhilarating—perfect, really, for a headliner like Radiohead, which makes it all the more surprising that the band is about to play the volcanic island nation for the very first time.
The scene feels less like a music festival that Radiohead is playing, than a festival celebrating the fact that Radiohead is playing. A line wraps itself out of the 11,000-person sports arena on the festival grounds, doubling back and snaking out alongside a soccer field and into the street. Clusters of garbage bags dot the queue in neatly sorted piles to collect the beer cans and takeout boxes of fans biding the hours until entry. The poor band playing the tent next to the arena has all of five people in attendance in the half hour before the show.
I find my friends and head inside, jetlagged and disoriented and looking forward to the escape of a massive rock show in a foreign country. We share beers and thoughts on the new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, trading Radiohead concert stories and getting into the excitement of a room about to see a long-beloved artist for the first time. Minutes later, the lights drop out, and the din of expectant chatter gives way to shrieks. There is no big arrival, no powerhouse kick-off, not even a “hello” or “góða kvöldið.” This isn’t the big headlining bells-and-whistles Radiohead set we’ve come to know. There’s only an ominous white glow, and a prolonged hum that builds into the intro of Pool opener “Burn the Witch.”
After about a minute, a wash of light illuminates the band, and Thom Yorke’s lilting falsetto fills the room. We turn to each other, and we scream, we jump, we hug, we sing along. Because when you see Radiohead, and you love Radiohead, you can't help but turn into a cliche.
Three thousand miles away in Istanbul, a group of fans are also listening to Radiohead, at a party hosted by the Velvet Indieground record store. They're sharing beers and thoughts on the new album, trading stories and getting into the excitement of participating in the band’s worldwide streaming event celebrating the physical release of Pool that day. An armed mob of 20 men breaks through the door and attacks them for playing music and drinking beer during Ramadan. A man’s jaw is smashed with a pipe. The whole thing is caught on video and broadcast over Periscope.
The news hits my phone 40 minutes or so into the set, an alert popping up on my screen as I raise it to record the creaking, vicious throwback of “My Iron Lung.”
“We are losing it,” Thom Yorke sings. “Can’t you tell?”
It’s been easy to write off Radiohead as a postmodern rock ‘n’ roll anachronism, a band whose cerebral nature and political commentary has in the past decade served more as fodder for blogosphere parody and collegiate rights of passage than a culturally relevant force. Radiohead's releases post-Amnesiac, though generally well-received, have left fans and critics alike wondering whether the band has anything new to say. For better or for worse, music has become, to paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, like a scented candle—something we put on in the background to set the mood and get away, rather than confront what's happening around us, and there's little appetite for a group of graying rock 'n' rollers to remind us that technology is isolating, politicians are corrupt, and humans are cruel to each other (the internet and social media are doing that just fine, thank you).
But "My Iron Lung," recorded two decades ago as a response to the glutted success of “Creep,” resonated with renewed gravity that night. The set would not be an escape, but the punctuation to a particularly harrowing week of mass violence and hatred, marked by the Orlando nightclub massacre, the slaying of a promising young British Labour MP, and anti-Muslim vitriol from Donald Trump. Experiencing the performance—particularly as a music fan who, between Paris, Orlando, and now this, thinks, “That could’ve been me” with growing regularity—was a reminder that for better or worse bands like Radiohead are significant now maybe more than ever, and that it’s increasingly difficult to cleave the politics of their music from what’s playing out around us.
The band would go on to play for two hours, a double-encore performance that began with a thinly-veiled takedown of Donald Trump (“Burn the Witch”) and ended with technological paranoia (“Idioteque”), again with the struggle against evil (“There There”), and finally, with fast fuzz numbness (“Bodysnatchers”).
It wasn’t pedantic; it was cathartic. The set played like a well-crafted story, kicking off with semi-improvised versions of the first half of Pool that were backed by an (incredibly cool) wall of minimalist, synaesthetic neon piping. Maybe it was their deconstructed, jazz-inflected interpretations, maybe it was the first-time Icelandic audience, or maybe the songs are simply still too new to be familiar, but those first five tracks felt like a reintroduction to Radiohead, stripping away expectation in favor of letting us just sit inside the music. If it wasn’t a typical headlining set, it was a much-needed exercise in embracing change.
This second half of the set offered a selection of older hits and favorites like “The Gloaming,” “The National Anthem,” “Everything in Its Right Place,” and “2+2=5,” whose themes of willfull ignorance, the rise of fascism, isolation-born fear, and, especially, apathy, feel eerily more relevant today than perhaps ever. Radiohead is, first and foremost, a great live band, with a rare ability to make most songs sound better live than on the recording that first captivated you, imbuing a renewed urgency into even the most overplayed tracks (see: the raised fists and deafening sing-a-long during a rare performance of “Creep”). Jonny Greenwood plays his instruments like he’s trying to break them in half; Thom’s voice may be at the best it’s ever been—his rendition of “Nude” could be used as Pavlovian trigger for heartbreak. They perform without hesitation, channeling a carnal conviction into their existential unease. It’s the kind of honesty and emotional clarity we all crave, but that most are too scared to express.
Around 11:30 PM, the crew reemerges on stage for the second and final encore, Yorke overtaking Greenwood's intro to "How to Disappear Completely" for “Karma Police,” whipping the crowd into a frenzy. We share beers and pass joints. I’m hugging and swaying with friends I just met, and they kiss me on the cheek.
I look up, and the instruments drop out. Yorke, as charismatic a frontman as he’s ever been, stands with arms outstretched, goading the crowd into the a cappella bridge: “This is what you get,” we shout. “This is what you get when you mess with us.”
It’s never been easier to feel disconnected—the profound unease and helplessness of terrible things that happen adjacent, but not directly to, you. Of course we want to escape. Of course politically charged music feels weary and moot. But this didn’t feel corny or anachronistic, it felt powerful. It felt good to look our anxiety in the eye, to sing about it, to celebrate it. That’s why we listen to music, isn’t it? The unease and isolation of these songs only reinforces our sense of connection to the music, and by default, to each other: It’s the knowledge that someone else is feeling that too; the beacon of “Who’s with us?” that can’t be articulated by words or lyrics alone.
Minutes later, we pour out of the venue, squinting in the midnight sun outside. Someone appears with a case of beer, and we sit on some steps to drink and sing and talk over each other about our favorite parts of the set. The sky is stained pink and orange, the sun hovering uncannily west just above the horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so detached from a sense of time or place, and I’m kind of OK with that. I don’t know where any of this is going. I’m just here. We may often joke that life is hell, but right now it’s beautiful.
Andrea Domanick woke up sucking a lemon. Follow her on Twitter.