With “Daydreaming,” Radiohead And Paul Thomas Anderson Have Converged At Last
Last Friday, Radiohead followed the surprise release of their “Burn The Witch” video with another surprise: the release of a second song, “Daydreaming,” accompanied by not only the announcement that their new album would suddenly be out Sunday afternoon, but also a hauntingly mesmerizing video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (If you have been on the internet at all in the past week, I can’t imagine how you would’ve avoided being barraged by this information — plus the video has been screening at select movie theaters nationwide — but, you know, there it is, just in case you missed it.)
The “Daydreaming” video marked the first collaboration between the director and the full band, though there have been explicit ties between them for almost a decade, and more abstract connections that extend back even father. Both Radiohead and Anderson are famous, mostly-mainstream juggernauts who have reigned over their respective scenes for around two decades, garnering consistent critical adoration as well as the fervent fan devotion. In hindsight, such a direct collision of their worlds almost feels overdue.
While Radiohead had a hand in other famous ’90s movie moments in Clueless and Romeo + Juliet, it took until the ’00s for their career and Anderson’s to start intersecting. Before that, however, they were moving along somewhat parallel paths. Both began as ’90s wunderkinds who felt very of that decade — for legitimate reasons, considering they helped define the tone of that decade’s pop culture — and yet later suddenly leapt way beyond being chained to any one scene, movement, or era. Each of them made their names on works that were edgy yet still mainstream. Boogie Nights had some weirdness, but it also had the arc and scope we knew from Martin Scorsese’s epic masterpieces. OK Computer had some weirdness, but it also could remind you of Pink Floyd. Both OK Computer and Boogie Nights were released in 1997.
Shortly after announcing themselves with their early, generation-defining works, both started taking strange left turns that were as genius as they were baffling. From the 2000/2001 double-shot of Kid A and Amnesiac all the way up to the new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead stayed in a more meditative and experimental lane than their initial rockstar beginnings, forging a path that’s idiosyncratic to them. Not many artists can put out albums like these and still play arena tours.
Anderson’s films followed a similar route, with 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2012’s The Master becoming both more intricate and sparse, enigmatic stories that tumble and rage into endings that play like strange ellipses, not unlike the unresolved questions many of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work leaves you pondering as well. Detractors of either artist might say they became meandering and obtuse. Acolytes would argue that they’ve pushed straight through the boundaries of their respective industries’ expectations and play entirely by their own set of rules, making instant-classic works of art that speak to eternal questions and themes in human life.
The Radiohead/PTA connection has roots almost 10 years before “Daydreaming,” when Radiohead’s visionary guitarist Johnny Greenwood provided the score for Anderson’s stunning masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Greenwood had made forays into orchestral composition before this: in Radiohead’s music, in his score for 2003’s Bodysong, and elsewhere. But this was of a higher profile, and the marriage of his and Anderson’s dispositions was revelatory.
Music — both score and pop songs — is often crucial in Anderson’s work; he’s one of those directors who sears a scene into your mind by mixing visuals, music, and narrative to heighten the emotive impact, or the perversity, or the surreal qualities of a given scene. There Will Be Blood was a film of monolithic proportions, an epic tale of sociopathic American hunger. It played like a biblical origin story for the American century, placing impulses to build and destroy alongside one another. All of which made it a perfect template for Anderson’s first collaboration with Greenwood. The latter’s score was rightfully praised for teasing out all the festering threat of that film.
Greenwood has commented on how he tries to keep the instrumentation period-correct when he does a score, but the compositions in There Will Be Blood often skew more modern stylistically. While there are fairly traditional moments, the stuff everyone remembers is the grinding, merciless, orchestral squalls, or the percussive patterns that sputter and lurch, each capturing the sound of the machinery of an industry (in this case, oil) coming to life. Like the movie itself, the score puts forth a certain idea: you’re watching the birth of one version of America as we know it, and you’re watching the violence that could occur to people through that birth.
They collaborated again for The Master, where the dynamic between Anderson’s storytelling and Greenwood’s music again captured a particular tone and ethos when portraying yet another tale that already felt like some piece of strange Americana legend. This time, Anderson’s story was about a post-war drifter and a charismatic cult leader, with no small amount of allusion to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Greenwood’s score here was claustrophobic, exacerbating the tension of The Master more and more until it felt as if it had no choice but to shatter and cede to the peculiar drift of the film’s latter sequences.
It was Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood, and the trailers made it feel like a spiritual sequel: another paradigmatic era of the American Century, another dangerously magnetic man of some influence, another score that was all foreboding about the barbaric elements of human nature that hid just beneath the surface of all this, waiting to erupt. Those trailers for The Master were like little works of art in themselves, bizarre mood poems that worked as well as they did, again, with the aid of Greenwood’s off-kilter, irregular heartbeat orchestration. Only these two guys would get away with an advertisement that played this way.
Anderson and Greenwood’s relationship continued through 2014 and 2015, with Inherent Vice and Junun respectively. While Greenwood at first seemed like a somewhat odd choice for a loopy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ultra-stoned chronicle of the collapse of the ’60s dream, he pulled that off, too. He brought in “Spooks,” an old Radiohead song that had been debuted back in 2006, but was rearranged here and performed by Greenwood alongside former Supergrass members Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey, underpinning Joanna Newsom’s narration from the film. His score sat alongside tracks from Radiohead progenitors as diverse as Can and Neil Young, and his new contributions actually achieved similar ends as they had in There Will Be Blood and The Master. If Anderson’s gone down a path of offering his own specific interpretation of the American Century through much of his filmography as it stands, then Inherent Vice’s score was another instance in which Greenwood helped him capture the anxiety of a particular time, the feeling of something sinister and/or broken hanging over the whole proceedings.
After their mutual heavy lifting with three thematic juggernauts in a row, their next project was a smaller, more intimate thing. Anderson made a documentary of Greenwood’s time at a fort in Rajasthan, India, where he made an album called Junun (from which the film takes its title) with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, and an Indian ensemble known as the Rajasthan Express. Both were released late last year. And while it was inherently a project not intended to have the same statement impact of Anderson’s preceding three films, it did mark the first time that Anderson contributed to something that was more of Greenwood’s, rather than the other way around.
Greenwood had a background in orchestral music from his youth, and his burgeoning interest in pursuing it had already seeped into Radiohead’s music along the way, notably in “Climbing Up The Walls,” “How To Disappear Completely,” and “Pyramid Song.” But alongside his scores for Anderson, Greenwood became an in-demand composer, which means a very weird thing had occurred. A pop group that had once been essentially a British grunge band had become an art-rock band capable of incorporating elements from truly avant-garde musical traditions into their sound and songwriting.
Greenwood, in turn, went from being not only the most groundbreaking and ingenious guitarist of his generation to also being a well-respected musician in the classical landscape, applauded for pushing the envelope and finding unnerving new directions in this music even when his references were plainly evident. You have Olivier Messiaen’s work to thank for spiking Greenwood’s interest in the bizarre early electronic instrument the ondes Martenot, which Greenwood has used to great effect in various Radiohead songs, including the underrated “Where I End And You Begin.” The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who Greenwood actually collaborated with in 2012, is his other most often-cited influence. (If you haven’t heard his “Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima,” it served as a major influence on Greenwood’s 2005 composition “Popcorn Superchet Receiver,” which in turn became source material for his There Will Be Blood score. Anyway, if you think some of “Daydreaming” and other tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool will mess you up, wait until you hear “Threnody.”)
While Greenwood’s affinity and talent in orchestral music seeped into Radiohead’s increasingly muted and mutated music here and there, it never became as much of a force as on A Moon Shaped Pool. His string arrangements are an irreplaceable element in the album’s otherworldly sound. It’s there in “Identikit” alongside the shocking choral shift in the “Broken hearts bring the rain” refrain; it’s crucial in forming the hazy atmosphere of “The Numbers.” The floating, spectral epilogue of “True Love Waits” is leveling one way or another, but even more so for the intense orchestral climax of “Tinker Tailor Soldier…” that drops you into it.
It’s hard to imagine the album having the same impact without Greenwood’s touch here, which underlines just how much of an anomaly Greenwood is, even in the context of Radiohead’s singular career. It isn’t unprecedented for rock and/or pop musicians to dabble in classical composition. But it is almost unheard of for one to ascend to a level like Greenwood’s, where the arrangements he brings to his own band are stunning and unexpected, and where he can more than hold his own as a composer outside of that context as well. He could’ve become this without working on Anderson’s films, but it lent this side of his musical identity a much larger footprint. Given that his music was a pivotal texture in Anderson’s last several movies, the two have benefitted from each other in this ongoing relationship.
So that brings us to “Daydreaming,” the moment where not only Greenwood’s experiences elsewhere come into play, but also when his buddy Anderson collaborated with Radiohead as a whole for the first time. Since the video is directed by Anderson, of course it looks gorgeous. The trippy narrative focuses on Thom Yorke, solitary and drifting through different settings. He opens a door in one place and exits in another. At first, these disconnected locations seem random — a house, a laundromat, a hospital, a beach. But as it grows and Yorke’s pacing becomes more frenetic, more aggrieved, you get the sense that you’re watching a man wander through places he’s been to before, listlessly revisiting various pasts, working his way back over ground he’s already walked on.
Maybe the initial viewing left its mark, but “Daydreaming” is one of those songs that has some alchemical property, some series of notes that unlocks something, or that forces you down pathways you wouldn’t otherwise explore. The first time I listened to it on headphones, walking around my neighborhood, my mind got lost in scenes from different decades, some lived and some unlived, jumping between memories or received memories or imagined memories at will, with no sense of order. Just amorphous human recollection. The song and video seem to want that. I went back and watched the video and realized that my experience didn’t seem too dissimilar from Yorke’s. It feels especially resonant when you consider the speculation that Yorke is singing “Half of my life” in the reversed vocals at the end of the track. It’s likely a reference to him splitting up with his partner of 23 years during the making of A Moon Shaped Pool, an event which is hinted at elsewhere and seems to hang over the whole record. After retracing steps from across his life, Yorke ends the video huddled, totally alone, by a fire in a cave in some snowy mountainside.
Like the finest of both Radiohead or Anderson’s works, it feels like something just to the side of normal human experience. The language is a little warped, the images a little more surreal, and while a great Radiohead song and a great PTA scene alike can leave you confounded, they usually have some uneasy and just-indecipherable truth to them. Like they get at something elemental and hidden in human nature, something that makes them impactful and relatable while remaining inscrutable. (This is why both are semi-challenging and exciting artists. This is also, unfortunately, what puts them alongside David Foster Wallace in the go-to holy trinity amongst indie college bros, whose insufferableness has sometimes poisoned the reputations of the artists they deify.) “Daydreaming” feels of a piece with the worlds Anderson’s explored in his most recent movies, and it of course appears to be one of the pillars of A Moon Shaped Pool, not just for the fact that it was one of the songs previewed ahead of release, but because it defines the stakes and scope of the album to follow. “Daydreaming” is the second track on the album following “Burn The Witch,” but the opener plays like a prologue.
On one hand, it’s a relatively small piece to finally bring the two artists together. It’s a music video, and even if it’s a great video and a Radiohead video, it’s not like music videos have the longest shelf-life or widest reach in today’s pop culture. But if you’re invested in either PTA or Radiohead, then the video is still a gift — a minor thing on its own that suggests whole swathes of experience, a pairing of song and imagery that gets under your skin and lingers for a very long time. If it’s the final culmination of Anderson’s interactions with Radiohead’s sphere, then it’s a beautiful and crippling final installment.
Chances are that isn’t the case. Greenwood, for the moment, seems situated as one muse in Anderson’s orbit, and for his part, it would seem Greenwood would continue to find worth in providing music for such an unpredictable director. Considering how both PTA and Radiohead came out of one decade’s youth culture and created their own, individually-defined worlds as their careers progressed, it’s easy to wonder what the two could do together on a larger-scale collaboration. As it stands, “Daydreaming” is something to hold onto, a representation of what they both do so well: something that feels as rawly personal as it does forever mysterious.