Sunday afternoons, Thom Yorke enjoys taking his kids to Oxford University's Museum of Natural History, a stately, neo-Gothic building on the outskirts of the city center. They wander around the grand atrium, past the skull of the humpback whale, propped up like a massive bear trap, and the stuffed dodo bird behind glass, and the creepy statues of Great Men of Science. The statues are extremely lifelike except for their eyeballs, which, thanks to some odd sculptorial decision, have been rendered as entirely blank orbs, giving boyish, pensive Newton and bearded, stoic Darwin and an unreasonably furious-looking Aristotle all terrifying dead-eyed stares. And, of course, Yorke's kids love the enormous dinosaur skeletons, which dominate the room, rearing up in fearsome poses.
Approximately 150 years earlier, a sickly, stuttering Oxford mathematician named Charles Dodgson would come to the museum with his college dean's young daughter, Alice Liddell; to entertain her, he would make up fantastic stories about the dodo and various other animals, which he eventually published under his pen name, Lewis Carroll, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Yorke, who is thirty-nine — he has a three-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son — also occasionally writes about animals, though not in a way meant to delight children. "Myxomatosis," from the 2003 Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief, is named for a horrible disease that kills rabbits and opens with the line "The mongrel cat came home holding half a head...." Then there is "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," a track on the most recent Radiohead album, In Rainbows, in which Yorke imagines himself at the bottom of the ocean being nibbled upon by fish and worms. Pluralizing "fish" as "fishes" is an unusual choice, and whenever Yorke howls the words "weird fishes," the questionable grammar makes him sound like a demented schoolboy.
The rest of the song has a muffled, underwater quality, with the titular arpeggio underlaid by a spare, insistent percussion and the guitar notes occasionally warping to sound like a steel drum might be buried deep in the mix. In another strange turn of phrase, Yorke croons, "Your eyes, they turn me," creating an interesting tension by never adding the expected "on." With all of the references to freedom — "why should I stay here"; "everybody leaves if they get a chance" — the song could almost pass for a morbid parody of early Springsteen, as if the protagonists of "Thunder Road" had busted loose from small-town Jersey by throwing themselves off a bridge. "Hit the bottom," Yorke sings in the final lines, "and escape."
A few blocks from the natural-history museum, Yorke arrives for an interview at the Old Parsonage, a centuries-old building — Oscar Wilde lived here as a student — since turned into a quaintly cluttered inn. Yorke's face is furrowed and unshaven, and though he certainly looks his age, perhaps older, he's also the most boyish member of Radiohead, small, fidgety and, this morning, wearing jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a knapsack with the straps stretched over both shoulders. (When guitarist Ed O'Brien shows up an hour later and sits beside Yorke, it's like a study in contrasts, stark examples for schoolchildren on how good and bad boys should behave: There's Yorke, squirming, hair a spiky mess, occasionally putting his head down or wiping his nose with his sleeve, while O'Brien, at six-five nearly a foot taller than Yorke, demonstrates unnervingly perfect posture, barely even moving his head as he speaks in precise tones.)
We're in a side room off the lobby. A Japanese businessman is sitting at a table in the corner, typing silently on a laptop as he waits to check in, while flames crackle in the hearth. "Big fire," Yorke notes, then murmurs, "They should use a stove. More efficient." Yorke's left eye is damaged from a series of operations he had as a child and is now stuck in a permanent downward list. But this morning both eyes are nearly squinted shut, and he has a sleepy grin. His daughter has a cough, and he's been up all night.
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