James Blake and Thom Yorke: What Two Sad British Men with Laptops Reveal About Their Generations

If you’re not too overwhelmed by the near-simultaneous releases of James Blake’s The Colour in Everything and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, stuck like a dog who’s had two biscuits placed at opposite ends of a room (but let’s face it, a morose basset hound, whose biscuits are old and soggy because so is the world), you might find that there’s a serendipity to this sudden outpour of tech-mediated, melancholy British falsetto. Both Blake and Yorke have made careers through wailing to the sounds of the future, but while Radiohead’s songs have often seemed like the cautionary foreshadowing of something imminent (notably environmental collapse, surveillance culture, and government tyranny — continued here mostly on opener “Burn the Witch”), for Blake the temporal setting has always felt like a mournfully accepted present, used as a soundscape for expressing aches more personal than societal.

Their paths as musicians working through technology — with Radiohead now having veteran status and Blake just graduating from wunderkind buzz — seem well in keeping with those of their generations, but they might now be aligning: Radiohead famously morphed from somewhat raw, underproduced rock band to long-form electro-conceptualists with Kid A (via the metamorphosing vessel of OK Computer) and Blake’s music has always existed within the latter category, less as a conceptual statement than a simple, instinctive predisposition to his brand of minimalist, hip-hop infused sound.

Blake’s miseries are personal and expressed nonchalantly through the alienation of technology; for Radiohead, technology has often been more of a causal force for their often-bleak tone. Now, on Radiohead’s “most personal” album, a couple of tracks — and their pointed placement — sound like they signify the band stepping from the precipice of foreshadowing and unease into a more comfortable, habituated take on the loneliness of emotional life in the present day — where technology and all its distortions are just incidentally there. Radiohead’s discography is an interesting example of arc, while Blake’s represents a near-Chekhovian study of sustained gloom that seems almost so insurmountable that there’s no question of whether it’s something he’d ever try to fight. (Not long before this release, he covered “The Sound of Silence,” where the words “hello darkness my old friend” never seemed so fitting.)

Lyrically, Blake’s new album turns toward nature (as the horror-folksy album art suggests) as the artist works through broken love: on “I Need a Forest Fire,” Blake, invoking the knowhow of electronic lumberjack pal Justin Vernon, asks for a forest fire to burn and rejuvenate what’s broken, while on “Waves Know Shores,” such is the simile for the desired closeness and familiarity of love. Blake doesn’t need to lyricize about technology, because his music embodies the experience of living in a world where the technologic gaze is woven even into the experience of a forest fire, of waves crashing, of love and the metaphors we can apply to it.

Radiohead lyrics have often alluded to technologic phenomena or the institutional powers bolstered by the information age. Blake, whose adult experience has likely, like his fellow millennials, centered around the same machines that make the noises in his songs, isn’t quite so lyrically meta about his music. Rather, he allows the beats heard through glass and metal (like that on “Modern Soul”) and the strangled choruses — looped and run through thickets of filters to sound vacillatingly immense and small, male, female and genderless — to express his contemporary, tech-mediated existence as something that simply is. There’s endless loneliness and alienation here (even in the most intimate moments, as on the a cappella “Meet You in the Maze”), but such seems an accepted given, a Matrix of tears out of which Blake’s music has no wish for a red pill.

At 1:02 in the decidedly color-leeched Colour in Anything track “Love Me in Whatever Way,” a fragmentary sound resonates as a form of punctuation. If, like I was, you’re listening to the album on a computer, before realizing it’s part of the song, you may think that your laptop is possessedly readying to take a photo of you — the beep sampled here sounds almost exactly like the countdown noise made by the Photo Booth on your MacWhatever. As Blake begs a dissolving love, “Tell me where I have to go/And then love me there,” this momentary sample shoots through the punctured dub beat, electronic mist, and blurred piano like a foghorn too feeble to save anything.

Analog photo booth images are somewhat universal if trite signifiers of nostalgia. They say so much about what was between two people: a strip of images against a neutral background that focuses on the individuals rather than their setting, halfway between candor and posturing, captured in a moment where people liked each other enough to express it in four silly poses. In that vein, in this song that’s a plea to fix or simply sustain fading love before it disappears entirely, the Photo Booth noise serves as a nonverbal signifier for nostalgia, alienated from sentimentality by the cold, reverberating sound we associate with the computerized reconstitution of the photo booth across all of our Mac computers. Like other millennials, the sonic vocabulary of computers is for Blake something that’s embedded; he harnesses the frenetic, glitchy complexities of the future-present into beautifully torpid songs that often seem autobiographical, relatively apolitical and particularly on The Colour in Anything, love oriented.

The interesting thing is that that’s where Radiohead has, in a couple of the standout songs on their gorgeous new album, also gone. But what makes the songs all the more dynamic for them is understanding where Radiohead has come from. After OK Computer, their rock/electronic album about pre-millennial tech alienation, they released Kid A, an electronic minimalist album about the effects of computers. The “pig in a cage on antibiotics” force of contemporaneity that caused paranoia on OK Computer had figuratively subsumed them, though they could wail stunningly about it from within its belly. In the extremely unsettling likes of “Everything in its Right Place,” Yorke’s voice sounds like it’s being leeched from his human form into an electronic vacuum, and this is followed immediately by “Kid A,” in which Yorke’s voice then tries to sing, completely muffled, within said vacuum, and that‘s soon followed by “How to Disappear Completely,” in which Yorke repeats mournfully, “I’m not here,” as if the vacuum has done its job swimmingly.

If Radiohead decidedly got swallowed by tech to sound like some pretty transhumanist nightmare of tech/human hybridity (especially on A Moon Shaped Pool, where Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements are so central), their music also decidedly never felt comfortable with it: unlike Björk, who’s seen a rapturous, harmonious commingling of strings and electronics, one of Radiohead’s most beguiling qualities is the sense of tension and unease about its own sonic vocabulary. Like so much of Yorke’s generation, in order to stay relevant and address what the world was becoming, Radiohead found that a form of adaptation was necessary — and like so many in that generation, that adaptation was understandably underlain with skepticism and paranoia. (In a way that parallels his outspokenness about what corporate tech has done to the ways music is consumed, famously calling Spotify the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse.”)

Now, on “Daydreaming,” one of the most desperately, resolvedly sad (rather than, say, paranoid or uneasy) songs Radiohead have released, Yorke and Blake cross paths to an extent, with Yorke now exploring his own emotional life through the sounds formerly used (and still used elsewhere on the album) by Radiohead for larger, more political statements about contemporary existence. Despite it being a video for the band and not Yorke’s solo work, “Daydreaming” only features Yorke, and as Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking noted in his review, the words “for half my life” are repeated in the outro, seemingly in regards to the recent end to the 47-year-old’s 23-year relationship. (The Internet likewise became a publicly used thing exactly around the halfway point of Yorke’s existence.)

The track starts simply with crystalline piano, but as on the aforementioned “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Nude,” it’s quickly overlain with bouts of Yorke’s voice seemingly being slurped into some electronic abyss. The video sees Yorke wandering through assorted interiors, searching parking lots and domestic spaces for something, until he reaches a mountain peak, crawls into a tiny cave by a campfire, and looks like he’s lying down to die. It seems as though, at the very edge of his desire, is the fantasy of return to some almost primitive sense of unmediated closeness with the Earth. But even then, in this last moment of attempted connection, as the video reveals, when he sings, its as though he’s being puppeteered by a laptop playing his voice, singing “for half my life,” backwards.

James Blake’s music has always sounded like that of someone born into a computerized world, who feels alienated by it but also knows nothing else, and thereby knows how to emote freely within that, as a fellow millennial without music production experience might write an emotionally potent post about a breakup on Facebook. There’s a consistency to the beauty of his mournful songs that makes it seem like there’s almost some comfort for him on these emotional nadirs felt deeply within a vast inhuman context. His music is that of someone creeping through the soundscape of disconnect that he generationally inherited; it is his first language, and he sings it mournfully, but without protestation. (The lack of tension there can even, at times on a 70+ minute album like Colour, get a bit boring.)

Even as they get closer to Blake’s resignation with the beautiful inhumanness their own sounds elicit, now making an album that’s settled enough into a world of tech hybridity to express more personal notions of strife within it, Radiohead will forever sound like a band who saw the world change before their eyes, whose life and whose music was split in half by that change. As such, their music will, it seems, always bear the fascinating dynamism created by the malaise of being caught between adaptation and resistance. When Radiohead started going electronic, Yorke’s voice began morphing into the wail of the intangible computer-ghost it’d become — though it’d keep singing its uncertainties with that state of being. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time” Yorke says on the small, defeated plea of A Moon Shaped Pool‘s closing track “True Love Waits,” while James Blake sings on “f.o.r.e.v.e.r,” “I noticed I can still ghost the streets,” as though one’s own impalpability were a casually sad given.