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“How to Disappear Completely”: A Guide on Profound Alienation

Photo Courtesy of Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke

Photo Courtesy of Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke

Shannon Durazo, Web Staffer

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A few days ago, I revisited the fleeting, ephemeral, mind-out-of-body-and-time aesthetic that is the Kid A experience, Radiohead’s fourth and best album. Though technically an “indie” record, genre classifications don’t come to mind when immersed in the expansive, hypnotic symphony of the year 2000 musical titan. To tackle the record in its entirety is a project too hefty for my 500-700-word limit, so instead I will dissect my favorite track on the project, the lofty, acoustic-guitar driven ballad “How to Disappear Completely”.

 

“How to Disappear Completely” is a title taken from Doug Richmond’s “How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found”, a guide on faking one’s death and establishing a new identity (ideally borrowed from an actual dead person with similar vital statistics). It’s a fitting title for a track that was conceived around a dreamThom Yorke had where he was floating around the city as if he were a ghost, accompanied with a passing comment from Thom Yorke’s friend and R.E.M front man Michael Stipe. The singer allegedly told Yorke that the best way to deal with the pressures of touring is to say to yourself, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening…” and then fade away.

 

 

In a haunting number that expresses the desire to disappear from reality, it’s fitting that the song begins with a precise fade-in and subtle reverse effects. A lone, simple acoustic guitar riff is an unusual backbone for such a grandiose track about alienation, but ends up working wonders for “How to Disappear”. As Yorke strums methodically throughout the number, the ambient effects around the central chords continuously build, as if mirroring Yorke’s gradual journey into dissociation. By the climax of the number, hefty strings have joined in along with feather light drums to guide the track’s spiral into nothingness. By the end even the hook “I’m not here” takes its leave and is replaced by the faintest of vocal melodies.

 

The central theme of the lyrics in this song is dissociation. Thom is on “automatic pilot”, performing, doing what he has to do to make a living, but simultaneously distancing himself from it all. In his head, he’s anywhere he chooses to be, “walking through walls”, “floating down the Liffey”. etc. He goes from place to place, and ‘in a little while, I’ll be gone, the moment’s already past, yeah, it’s gone.” The once exciting sensation of performance has now become dull, and Yorke just wants to disappear from it all. “Strobe lights and blown speakers” in the second verse refers to the sound staging and light shows that accompany Radiohead performances. “Fireworks and hurricanes”, refers to the crowds, fans and excitement in the huge venues they play around the world. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” expresses his desire to get away from it all. To Yorke, show business feels like the gradual loss of reality, and the choral emptiness that is “How to Disappear” makes for one of the bleakest and most beautiful Radiohead tracks ever created.

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“How to Disappear Completely”: A Guide on Profound Alienation