So my neuroscience prof put this picture up on the board the other day. You know the one: if you look at it one way, it’s two silhouettes staring at each other across blank white space; look at it a bit differently, and it’s an ornate white goblet set against a black background. The picture is designed to show how the same set of visual stimuli can, when processed or perceived differently, yield two completely different images.
But you knew that, right? It’s not hard to see how two people with different viewpoints, values and experiences might see the same painting, or film, or book, in slightly different – or even diametrically opposite – ways. Take, for example, Forrest Gump. Great movie, right? Uplifting story, six Oscar wins, Tom Hanks tugging at your heartstrings as only Tom Hanks can? I fucking hated that movie. I can’t explain why, honestly – and believe me, I’ve tried. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t get it (though a lackluster 71% on RottenTomatoes suggests otherwise). This phenomenon of divergent perception is all around us; in an inherently subjective arena like art, it’s pretty much the name of the game.
Every once in a while, however, the opposite happens: perspectives converge, and two entirely different works hit a person in exactly the same way. Sometimes, these conflations can verge on the ludicrous – like when people claim to love movies “like The Godfather and Scarface,” which comedian John Mulaney likens to simultaneously professing one’s love for lobster and Skittles. Sometimes they’re completely logical, based in the nature of the works and circumstances of the consumer’s interaction with them. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and the music of the Grateful Dead will always mean the exact same thing to me. Sure, they’re both Trustafarian clichés, but there’s more to it than that. They will always remind me of that magical summer between high school and college, when I had everything before me and approximately nothing figured out. They will always embody the youthful (foolish?) exuberance I hope to hang on to as real life tries to beat it out of me.
The story I’m about to tell you is one of divergence and convergence. It concerns how two bands in nearly identical situations could set out with nearly identical goals and create radically different albums. It also concerns how two albums with radically different sounds, ideas and emotional tones – Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – could come to represent, for me and for many others, the exact same thing: beauty, elegance, and the courage to step away from the cutting edge and find splendor, and even novelty, in the banal.
For all their differences in time and place, the origin stories of In Rainbows and Crooked Rain are remarkably similar. I’ll spare you the music history lesson, which most of you that didn’t grow up idolizing John Cusack in High Fidelity like I did will probably find horrifically boring. But here’s the three-sentence version: both bands made radically innovative, genre- and era-defining albums, and then, rather than try to top themselves, they retreated. Rather than keep reaching for new levels of stratosphere, they came back down to earth.
This is where things start to get complicated. Already in the process of writing this paragraph, I’ve changed my mind four times. Are these two entirely different albums, originating from a similar locus of ideas and creative circumstances and radiating in diametrically opposite directions? Or are they the exact same record, made by entirely different bands, with entirely different agendas, in different decades and on different continents?
I think the real truth lies somewhere in the middle. The way I see it, these albums represent two differing conceptions of grace and beauty: one carefully curated and impossibly serene, preserved like a fly in amber; the other stoned, slap-dash and almost accidentally gorgeous.
Sure, the surface sound and the overall vibe are worlds apart. But are they, really? Can’t you see the mournful coda of “Stop Breathin’” in the overwhelmingly sad and beautiful “Nude?” The plaintive, wordless melodies of “Reckoner” in the abstract yet incredibly compelling nostalgia of “Gold Soundz?” Or the itchy anxiety of “Bodysnatchers” in the snotty California kiss-off of “Unfair?” (Side note – “I’m not your neighbor, you Bakersfield trash”: best song lyric ever.)
At the end of the day, all of this is probably bullshit. When Pavement put out Crooked Rain, Radiohead were just those whiny dudes on MTV who made that one crunchy guitar lick that had Butthead explaining, “Well Beavis, if they didn’t have, like, a part of the song that sucked, then it’s like, the other part wouldn’t be as cool.” And when Radiohead hit the studio for In Rainbows, Pavement were in the deepest valley between their semi-fame and the retro-popularity they have come to enjoy. So the only thing linking these two albums for me is, well, me. They both hit me right as I was starting to get into music, when I was reading my first Pitchfork reviews and air drumming to The Strokes in the back of 9th grade homeroom. These were the albums that taught me that great music didn’t have to be abrasive, or challenging, or monolithic; sometimes it was okay for it to just be straight-up pretty.
That was a critical moment in my musical evolution, and probably an important one in my growth as a person, too. I learned that the “alt” ideal I wanted to subscribe to fit me just as poorly as the “normal” one against which it rebelled. Sure, I liked indie music and capital-S-serious books, but I liked Family Guy and basketball too. And while I’ve long since grown out of the Family Guy phase, the development of my own unique personality somewhere between those poles of “hip” and “square” – probably far closer to “square” than I’m willing to admit – has been an ongoing, and I’d say relatively successful, process. And that’s why these two albums, much more so than their more radical and critically acclaimed predecessors, will always be close to my heart. They taught me to stop reaching for some ideal of who I should be and just be me.
“Don’t get any big ideas; they’re never gonna happen.” – Radiohead, “Nude”
“Darlin’, don’t you go and cut your hair, do you think it’s gonna make him change?” – Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”