At exactly 12:57 p.m. Tuesday (March 29), I ventured outside of MTV headquarters here in Times Square expecting to see Thom Yorke standing on an overturned apple box, wearing a newsboy cap, hawking copies of “The Universal Sigh,” the bizarre newspaper thingy Radiohead printed to promote the physical release of their The King Of Limbs album (at least, I think that’s what it’s for). Instead, I was greeted by a line of wild-eyed Radiohead fans, each frantically checking their mobile devices, then scanning the horizon for any sign of the band — after all, this was the exact spot where Yorke and Co. announced they’d be handing out copies of the paper — then returning their forlorn gazes to their mobile devices. Some of them even perched MacBooks on their chests, which seemed a little ridiculous.
Nonplussed, I decided to go get a sandwich. It was lunchtime after all.
When I returned, sandwich in hand, the line had vanished. “Had all the papers been handed out?” I wondered. Turns out they were just being distributed one block up. So I walked up there, waited in line for roughly one minute and was handed a copy of the paper by a girl wearing a satchel over her shoulder. My photo was taken and that was it. No tussles, no shouting mobs, no Thom Yorke dressed like a street urchin. Just a bunch of Radiohead fans waiting patiently in a line outside an Aeropostale store. “Universal Sigh” indeed.
Now back up at my desk, I’m paging through it (you can do the same here), feeling the dusty residue of newspaper ink coat my fingers. It is an oddly nostalgic thing, that feeling, and perhaps that was the reason Radiohead decided to print “The Universal Sigh” in the first place: It’s a deliberately dusty ode to our (very recent) past, an overly wordy, artfully technophobic bomb lobbed at life in the 21st century. You cannot download it or upload it or even stream it. You have to read it.
Then again, if that’s not why they decided to do this, well, then I’m at a loss. Filled with Yorke’s overly-caffeinated e.e. cummings wordplay (“The book of/ the book of forgiveness/ the book of request/ the book of the dream/ that was ok”), actual lyrics from the Limbs album, short stories, a whole lot of post-apocalyptic scribblings and dense, dank artwork from Stanley Donwood, there seems to be no real point to “The Universal Sigh,” which, come to think of it, might actually be the point indeed. Because if you are a fan of Radiohead, this is exactly the reason you love the band in the first place.
There’s also one of those QR Codes on the back of the thing, which may unlock some secret content or something (apparently it allows you to download artwork, but I don’t know how to work it, because I am old). But really, “The Universal Sigh” seems to have been drawn from the same place the band went to for their The King Of Limbs album: Namely, an insular, do-it-yourself-for-the-sake-of-doing-it world that only Radiohead (and their fans) seem to inhabit. As one of the latter, I welcome the latest edition to the family, even if I don’t really understand it in the slightest.
And now it’s on to my sandwich, ink-stained hands and all.