JORGE FARAH: Boops and bleeps. The confluence of influences that led to alternative music’s seemingly collective turn towards electronic arrangements at the start of the century is fascinating; it involves dystopian paranoia, millennium anxiety, and guitar-rock fatigue, as well as a rediscovery and reassessment of krautrock, ambient techno, and the emotional potential of experimental music. But to its detractors, it was just boops and bleeps. Thom Yorke forgot how to write hooks, they say, so he resorted to fiddling around on his laptop, and thousands of artists followed suit. Meanwhile, the turn of the century also represented a tipping point for pop culture’s treatment of the pop star as a seraphic cultural touchstone. For a while, the very highest echelon of this wave of musicians reached a level of ubiquity and cultural saturation that would seem over-the-top to even the brightest stars in our infinitely more scattered, diversified current pop culture landscape—your Taylor Swifts, your Justin Biebers. In the late nineties and early aughts, with music-video culture at an absolute fever pitch, this crop of young, well-groomed artists often found themselves taking on a role more aptly described as “cross-marketer occasionally dabbling in music.” The tension between these two concurrent trends may have resulted in one of Elvis Costello’s most brilliant and inexplicably overlooked songs: 2002’s “Radio Silence.”
“Radio Silence” is one of Costello’s most brilliant and inexplicably overlooked songs
“Radio Silence” closes out When I Was Cruel, one of several albums in Costello’s career to have been marketed as a “return to rock” after a couple of albums of chasing his musical curiosity down quirkier paths (this time around, it followed a project with Burt Bacharach and then another with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter). And yes, When I Was Cruel is a rock record, containing guitar-based scorchers such as “Dissolve,” “Daddy Can I Turn This?” and “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution).” But it also contains a good amount of electronic experimentation, with loops, drum machines, samples, and heavily-processed sounds. Whether this was a direct response to the alternative music landscape at the time or a rare instance of EC’s own musical interests aligning with the trends of the moment is hard to say. When I Was Cruel isn’t exactly Kid A; it’s very much an Elvis Costello album with decidedly Elvis Costello-sounding songs, but it’s undeniable that the slinky, noir-ish feel of several of those tracks is amplified by their use of synthetic sounds of mysterious origin. Boops and bleeps, if you will. “Radio Silence” is a bit different from those songs in that it utilizes its elements of studio trickery—the chopped-up drum pattern that cuts in and out like a faulty transmission, that processed feedback that serves almost as a rhythmic base, the hesitant palm-muted guitar that opens every verse and disappears halfway through it—to create an air of melancholy rather than mystery or menace. There is a sense of regretful longing throughout, further underlined by its plaintive melody and lyrical content. There’s something very cinematic about how the song unfolds, both narratively and sonically.
Where Costello delivered “Radio Radio” with seething anger, this sounds like a sigh or resignation
“Radio Silence” could be read a couple of different ways. It uses the narrative framing device of a hostage drama to get its point across, drawing parallels between the radio station, the hapless listener, and the artist struggling to be heard through the noise. It’s not immediately clear just who is being taken for hostage, or who the hostage-taker is, as the details of the story are just barely outlined through colorful narrative brush strokes and flashes of dialogue: “get my wife down here”, “the hostage will end up dead”. It serves as an allegorical exploration of the role of pop radio in the age of frenzied celebrity. In a way, it is a thematic sequel to 1978’s “Radio Radio”; it details a list of grievances against terrestrial radio, the desultory palaver of the dimwitted DJs that populate it, and the tepid music that was shoved down the public’s throat through it (“the sad waste of this wonderful invention”).
But while the words in “Radio Radio” were delivered with seething anger, “Radio Silence” sounds more like a sigh of resignation. It’s nearly a quarter of a century later and very little had changed. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back to that era as the peak immediately preceding a precipitous fall for radio and its role as hitmaker, trendsetter and status-quo affirmer. There would soon be enormous changes to how the public perceived and consumed music. In that sense, “Radio Silence” can retroactively be viewed as a sad denouement of an era where we were still taking our cues from its transmissions. An argument could be made that this gave way to something even more sinister; that the democratization of talk radio and music distribution (now largely supplanted by podcasts and algorithm-driven playlists) has made it even harder to tell the difference between a king and a jack, between a poet and a hack. But that’s a conversation for another day.
KEVIN DAVIS: The simple concept of “radio silence” carries with it in itself an air of melancholy. The trusty Google dictionary defines the term primarily as “an absence of or abstention from radio transmission,” but it’s the second, colloquial definition that really underlines the idiom’s emotional weight: “a period during which one hears nothing from a normally communicative person or group.” “Silence” alone is peaceful, tranquil—eerie at times, sure, but also necessary respite from the chaos and bedlam of modern life. “Silence” alone is an atmospheric condition. “Radio silence,” by comparison, is loaded silence, that which inherently possesses implications; it indicates a circumstance in which something that once gave off signs of life has suddenly ceased doing so, potentially for reasons unknown. It’s a strange song in that it feels transparently self-referential, almost melodramatically equating an artist bound by the shackles of the business with a person being physically held hostage, yet with the benefit of hindsight we know that it came at the beginning of an extremely creatively fertile period for Costello. Over the next seven years, Costello would release North, The Delivery Man, Il Sogno, My Flame Burns Blue, The River in Reverse, Momofoku, Secret Profane and Sugarcane, and National Ransom—an utterly astonishing creative outpouring that contains some of the man’s furthest-flung experiments as well as some of his just downright strongest music. It is a song out of time in that regard; perhaps it’s no accident that it appears in sampled form as “Can You Hear Me,” one of three bonus tracks tacked onto deluxe editions of Wise Up Ghost, Costello’s last album in almost four years.
“Radio Silence” gives us a lot of cues of what Costello thought of the music business at the time
No question, the lyrics to “Radio Silence” give the listener a lot of cues that Costello was in mind of the music business—both its role in relation to the artist, and the general changing of tides taking place around the time the song was released—when he composed the song. In 2002, the impact of the Napster revolution was long since felt; kids on dial-up modems worldwide were connected to Kazaa and Limewire and other illicit hubs of the like, clandestinely sharing mislabeled 128 kilobyte-per-second mp3s of more music than they could reasonably listen to in multiple lifetimes, just because the act of being able to do so was itself somehow satisfying. The lyric, “Mystery voices/Drowned out by t0o much choice,” always reminds me of this; this is a song that exists on the precipice of a world in which consumers will become so overwhelmed by information that they will not be able to control the quality or depth with which they consume it. That or they will simply lack the wherewithal to care.
Musically, the fractured drum loops and blippy guitar feedback are perfect formal mirrors for the lyrics in the song; the sound of signals breaking up, of communication gradually diminishing in integrity. Yet there is a lot of depth to this composition that, like “Still Too Soon to Know,” is implied rather than stated; it is one of many Costello songs that could seemingly be stripped to its bare essences and rebuilt from the ground up any number of ways that would pay greater service to melodic and harmonic tensions left unexplored due to the minimal nature of the arrangement (one of the common musical themes across When I Was Cruel). But in this case, the medium and the message are one and the same; this is a song deliberately zeroed in not only on what it does not convey, but what it perhaps can’t convey, limited as we so often are when the best we can do is fight through the noise and hope the signal gets through somehow.
Boops, bleeps, and boundless musical boldness awaits in our ever-expanding Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist. Enjoy: