Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, is not the first pop artist to find success with a song about global warming.
Andrew Bird, a superb violinist and exciting new rock musician with a long-term interest in weather systems, already has an alternative hit with his Tables and Chairs, a soaring song with a great chorus about global warming:
so don’t, don’t you worry, about the atmosphere
or any sudden pressure change
cause i know
that it’s starting to get warm in here
and things are starting to get strange
But Yorke is the first rock star to top the charts with a record focused on global warming, hitting number two this week with his new album The Eraser. Although usually loathe to discuss the meaning of his often-inscrutable songs with the press, he openly described to the L.A. Times what inspired the record:
In the paper one day, [Friends of the Earth activist] Jonathan Porritt was basically dismissing any commitment that the working government has toward addressing global warming, saying that their gestures were like King Canute trying to stop the tide. And that just went “kaching” in my head. It’s not political, but that’s what I feel is happening. We’re all King Canutes, holding our hands out, saying, “It’ll go away. I can make it stop.” No, you can’t.
This became the central image in The Eraser — a king futilely attempting to hold back waves of disaster, drawn from a print by Yorke’s friend Stanley Donwood.
On the Radiohead site, Yorke links to a new climate change campaign called The Big Ask, and in his usual offhand but factual manner, talks about how the issue has hit him personally:
THIS IS WHAT IM DOING NOW. this is big shit.this is the big ask. about climate change the stuff that wakes me up at 4am in a sweat, ….is that normal? i worry too much, apparently……THOMx
The record, constructed on a laptop, is electronica and sounds a little strange. Yorke aptly describes it as “bits and bobs and shreds of all sorts of random chaos.” But it frames Yorke’s thin but charismatic quaver — the voice of anxiety in our times — extremely well. “A million engines in neutral,” he sings. “The tick tock tick of a ticking timebomb.”
In his lyrics, Yorke elegantly describes the central reality of global warming, the natural fact that we as a culture have the most trouble accepting — its cloudy blend of invisibility and inevitability. “It’s relentless / Invisible / Indefatigable / Indisputable / Undeniable.”
As reviews (of both the solo album and the live version with Radiohead) have said, it’s a strong record: alluring, unsettling, oddly beautiful. (Here’s a link to a solo acoustic performance of “The Clock,” which begins “Time is running out …”)
No one’s going to come out of this dirt-free; I don’t come out of it dirt-free. It’s basically [about] having to make a decision whether to do nothing or try to engage with it in some way, knowing that it’s flawed. It’s convenient to project that back on to someone personally and say they’re a hypocrite. It’s a lot easier to do that than actually do anything else. And yeah, that stresses me out, because I am a hypocrite. As we all are.
Facing facts: It’s a start.