I am scared I might stay like this forever

Thom Yorke & Stanley Donwood, Fear Stalks the Land! A Commonplace Book

Canongate, 176pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781838857363

reviewed by Emily Herring

In the year 2000 I was nine years old and I had already survived one apocalypse. It was foretold that as we made the switch to the new millennium, computers would no longer be able to tell what century we were in, and everywhere networks and software would crash. In our irredeemably computer-dependent society, this meant that planes would fall out of the sky, medical devices would fail, life savings would vanish from bank accounts, nuclear reactors would melt, and people would be stuck in lifts. Thankfully, the damage was ultimately minimal. But after this crisis was averted, I became aware of another looming threat. We were sending something called greenhouse gases into the sky, which was making the planet warmer and melting the ice into the sea. From what I understood, by the time I grew to be my parents’ age, the world would look very different. I would experience unbearably hot summers, see the coastlines redrawn, and watch my favourite trees and animals disappear. I found some comfort in my inability to project that far into the future; at the time, adulthood still appeared inconceivably distant. But without realising it, I had internalised a pessimistic idea: my future would likely be worse than my present. One day, the following year, when my mother picked me up from school, I noticed that all the adults were unusually agitated. I lived in Paris, six hours ahead of New York City. The first tower collapsed minutes before I got home. For months after that, every time I took the metro or entered a tall building, I experienced claustrophobia, something I had never felt before.

It is hard to convey to people too young to remember just how weird the turn of the millennium was. As far as arbitrary milestones go, the year 2000 was the flashiest one in living memory, so naturally we invested it with all sorts of anxieties, symbols, and portents. If it were somehow possible to extract the very specific flavour of unease that was in the air at the time and translate it into musical frequencies, the result would sound a lot like two albums released by the British band Radiohead in the autumn of 2000 and the spring of 2001, Kid A and Amnesiac. Now, 20 years or so later, in Fear Stalks the Land! A Commonplace Book (2021), Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and his long-time friend and collaborator, visual artist Stanley Donwood, have excavated dozens of notes, song lyrics, faxes, lists, and drawings exchanged during the period 1999-2000, documenting both how strange that moment was for them on a personal level, and for the rest of the world.

It is an odd exercise to look back 20 years. My child self has disappeared under layers of new selves, and the Y2K world she inhabited is now long gone. This sense of self-estrangement pervades Fear Stalks the Land!, which the authors dedicate to their turn-of-millennium selves ‘where ever they may be now’. In a recent interview on the Talk Art podcast, Yorke and Donwood speak of the strange experience of becoming reacquainted with a past self through thousands of 20-year-old scribbles:

YORKE: In the process of scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with this material, we were [. . .] kind of shocked about where we were at around that time [. . .].

DONWOOD: Yeah, I don't recognise that lunatic (presumably points at Yorke) . . .
YORKE: (laughs) Yeah, me.

DONWOOD: . . . and I don't recognise myself either in that period.

This kind of feeling is not uncommon when revisiting one’s personal history. But during the period recovered in Fear Stalks the Land!, Yorke was experiencing self-alienation of a more serious kind. He had spent the end of the 1990s reeling from the triumph of his band's most recent album, OK Computer (1997), which received almost universal praise. As Radiohead ping-ponged around the globe from interview to sold-out arena, the singer felt increasingly dissociated from the image his success was reflecting back at him. He and his bandmates were being credited as geniuses, a term his self-effacing tendencies could not, in fact, compute. He was not the first to suffer from the weight of global fame, but his temperament made him particularly poorly equipped to deal with it. As Radiohead’s frontman, he was left to deal with much of the talking to the press, and, after a while, he no longer recognised the words coming out of his mouth. The singer was left with acute impostor syndrome, paranoia, and a seemingly insurmountable case of creative block. He never wanted to pick up a guitar again. His mind felt like an inescapable underground maze, a state personified in Donwood's weeping minotaur character, present throughout the book.

A lot of the sketches and words in Fear Stalks the Land! reflect Yorke's mental health at the time, and most of them read like nightmares. The book opens with what appears to be the recounting of a dream in which the protagonist (most likely Yorke) finds himself surrounded by a crowd of people expecting him to demonstrate his ability to fly. As the newspapers start reporting on his incredible talent, he is alone in the knowledge that he is unable to perform this feat, and this plunges him into a deep state of paranoia. The parallels with Yorke’s own struggles with fame are evident. A few pages later, a ‘modified bear’ (another one of Donwood's creations and Radiohead's mascot) wearing a ‘dunce’ cap and a psychotic grin bemoans: ‘i'll open my mouth to talk but nothing happens.’ Elsewhere, we see a drawing of a character lost deep within a pyramidal structure with the caption: ‘I am scared I might stay like this forever.’

Yorke now describes his past self as a ‘nutter’. Perhaps this is a just assessment, or perhaps a certain level of sadness, anxiety and general neurosis was the only sane reaction to an insane world. As I have said, this was a weird time. In the opening pages the book, at the end of a bleak stream of consciousness filled with ‘the end of everything’, ‘noises of crunching metal’, ‘torn ligaments’, and ‘spilt oil’, we find a footnote containing a list of ‘selected examples of ice melt around the world, circa 1999’. It is hard to pin depression on simple fatigue, or on a chemical imbalance, when there is no future. The pessimism I began to experience around this time as a child is all-consuming in Fear Stalks the Land!. The overwhelming impression is one of suffocating gloominess with, at times, apparent foresight on the eve of 9/11 (‘No amount of careful precaution can save me from random chaotic violence’). Among Yorke and Donwood's other morbid obsessions we find: the soullessness and profound injustice of late 20th-century capitalism, the cynicism of advertisers and the media, dystopian technological advances (‘Genetically engineered children will be a reality in my lifetime’), surveillance culture, and the vacuity of celebrities with ‘blurry unfinished eyes’.

Many of the fears that stalked the land twenty years ago are unfortunately still relevant today. They have since mutated into new forms and snowballed even more pressingly into view. Because of their apparent prescience, it is often said that Kid A and Amnesiac were somehow ‘ahead of their time’. But nothing in Yorke’s lyrics (scattered across Fear Stalks the Land!), no more than in the lists of terrifying images that he and Donwood compulsively faxed one another, actually predicted anything. They simply pointed towards what was already there. As hypersensitive creative types, they were able to pluck what was ‘in the air’ out of the air, and channel it into their paintings, lyrics, and sounds. Kid A and Amnesiac sound like fin de millennium angst felt. Radiohead’s music did such a good job of capturing the direction in which the events of our world were unfolding, that it retrospectively seems as though they were predicting the future. But when we look at their past work and say that it was ‘ahead of its time’, what we are actually trying to say is that it was perfectly of its time, and the rest of us are still struggling to catch up.

Nowadays, Yorke appears much more at peace with himself. He seems to have drawn important lessons from his intimate reacquaintance with his depressed past self. In a recent interview on the Radio Juxtapoz podcast he reflected: ‘My former self just needed to be reassured that the impostor syndrome thing that he had going on was transient and he was going to pull through it and there was a need to celebrate what was amazing about that moment in our lives creatively which often got lost in the confusion.’ In one of his most recent songs, written with his new band The Smile, he reassures us all that our various current crises are ‘just a bad moment’, and that there is freedom in the knowledge that ‘one day this will end’.

Emily Herring is a writer based in Paris.