Radiohead: How to Disappear Completely
March 3 2022, by Peter Livingstone
Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely evokes a sombre tone through the use of dissonant harmony and subtle instrumental layering. The song begins with an unannounced, atonal haze of strings. It is without a solid beat or tempo leaving it in a state of limbo feeling disconnected. Playing is an ambiguous chord difficult to define, the lower part of the chord having an octave D in the bass with B, E and F sharp laying above in close proximity to one another. This perhaps suggests a D major key, however it is what soars above that throws the tonal nature of the string into chaos and mystery, utilizing an A half sharp. This microtonal inclusion to the chord creates an abrasive and undefined sound with no clear cadential direction, outside the realms of where many western popular artists may venture, sounding lost in its own harmony, summing up the track’s title well. This however until we find our guide.
The soft, hushed sound of Thom Yorke’s acoustic guitar is the first element heard that grounds the listener, establishing both the rhythm and harmony of the piece, strumming a D9th chord in a 6/8 time. This harmony makes sense of the D, F sharp and E in the strings, unchanging after Yorke’s introduction, the A still haunting in the soundscape above. In contrast to the strings’ seemingly frozen nature, the guitar moves forward at a brisk pace. The syncopated accents in Yorke’s strumming pattern colours this section with a playful rhythm that jumps and weaves around the strings.
The following layer establishes this song’s key motif wielded by Radiohead’s soul guitarist for this album, Ed O’Brien, with a melody that sinks from a high A to an E in a short, heart breaking glissando descension. The guitar’s reverb and delay effects echo this chilling motif, prolonging this subdued flourish’s existence within the texture. The effects used on the guitar mirror the ghostly atmosphere of the strings, only this time sounding unearthly, its sound more akin to an alien tongue then the distorted grit heard in the century before.
This song’s final instrumental introduction of the opening is Collin Greenwood’s bass guitar, acting as the uniting force texturally. He comes in at bar 9 with a calm, subtle entrance. The bass gently glides up and down an F sharp minor chord in a repeating pattern with the duration of dotted quavers acting as duplets in this time signature. This forms a contrast from the acoustic guitars straight semiquaver sweeping effortlessly creating a cross rhythm between two separate parts while still residing within its own rhythmic world. The reliable ostinato arpeggios act almost as a melody; something for us to latch onto in this scape of foreign sound, again being the unifying element of the rest of the parts.
Once the foundation of this nightmarish lullaby has been layered to completion, the verse begins. It is Yorke’s vocals that will be the centre of the listener’s attention for the remainder of the song. His high, schoolboy-like voice is synonymous with Radiohead’s highly recognisable sound, leading Yorke to believe that his voice is directly responsible for the band sounding ‘bloody depressing’. This is of course just a common theme of self-deprecation within the band, when in reality his voice is believed to be one of the most versatile in rock history. This voice is injected into the stream of melancholia with the following lyrics, together emphasising themes of disassociation and anxiety:
That’s not me
Where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the Liffey
I’m not here
This isn’t happening
I’m not here
Peter Livingstone, L6