Greg Gaston – “Radiohead: They Do It to Themselves” (2007)

January 21, 2009 at 9:46 am (Reviews & Articles)

Written for Crawdaddy!, Nov. 14, 2007…


Every great band reaches a critical point in their career and must decide whether to remain the same or to evolve into something else. Without growth comes stasis—often the death knell for artists in their prime. It’s hard to fault bands like U2, who left their classic, platinum sound behind with the daring transformation of Achtung Baby. Their subsequent, continued artistic and commercial success speaks for itself. On the other hand, some bands never recover from their evolutionary changes. Consider REM, for instance, whose sound has devolved into something almost unrecognizable from their early peak.
This all brings me to Radiohead, one of the best and most popular bands of the last decade—two qualities that don’t often go hand-in-hand. They’re also one of my favorite bands (or at least used to be), and with the release of their new release, In Rainbows, they’re worth shouting about again. I just found The Bends on my personal jukebox, and am cueing up “Black Star” to get us started. Let me pour the opening round, drinks on me. Cheers.
Much depends on when you first fall in love with a band—it’s usually that opening sonic volley that grabs you and gives you that first flush, that first fever. Back in the mid-‘90s, during the aftermath of grunge, The Bends seized me by the lapels and made my heart hum. Between Thom Yorke’s soaring voice and their anthemic songs, Radiohead filled an empty niche in the rock world: combining keen intelligence with mature angst in a post-grunge soundscape of symphonic guitars, impressionistic lyricism, and ambitious sweep.
With the release of Kid A in 2000, Radiohead radically reinvented their music, for better or worse (I believe for the worse), and became the ultimate hipsters’ band, as well as, ironically, somehow also finding mainstream success. Surprisingly, Radiohead also became the band du jour at raves and nightclubs. This paradox cuts at the core of who they are, and defines both their new music and their critical rep.
My mention of U2 and REM isn’t a casual one, since Radiohead bridges the distance between both bands in temperament and musical gifts. It’s as if they discovered how to balance U2’s soul-stirring populism with REM’s more elliptic and oblique song canon. It fits that both Michael Stipe and Bono befriended Thom Yorke, even mentoring him at one point on celebrity protocol—if you can imagine that. Whole songs off of Radiohead’s underrated full-length debut, Pablo Honey, even recall Bono and his blokes in their bombast. Check it out, the echoes are there.
When you listen to early Radiohead, meaning their first three records, what’s immediately head turning is Yorke’s mutant angel voice and the incendiary songs themselves: shimmering, mercury-hued classics that tremble with emotion and sound dialed in from some sci-fi, alien frequency. The Bends is not only their most accessible record, but still offers their best collection of individual songs. The Yorke template for open-heart, surgical balladry begins here with “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry.”
And, of course, this is followed up by OK Computer in 1997, which rightfully made Radiohead a phenomenon. Still considered one of the Great Records of the last few decades, this suite of dense, multi-layered songcraft overflows with electric passion and alienation. Like The Wall for Pink Floyd, everything comes together here in a masterwork of concept and execution. This is post-apocalyptic music, rarely bettered in its operatic estrangement with the world. Chiseled, laser guitars spear the melodies, and the dubbed vocal tracks overlap in echoed catharsis. It’s as complex and orchestral a piece as anything Queen ever recorded. And best yet, it is prog-rock without the wanking, interminable solos.

These songs depict an Orwellian nightmare of encroaching technology and the rise of the authoritarian, corporate-owned state. The record predates the Bush administration, but still foretells his disastrous reign with chilling accuracy. War is Peace and Freedom is War—do these absurd slogans sound familiar?

Two years after OK Computer came out, I moved to Egypt to teach English. Living in Cairo’s sweaty suburbs amidst the desert, the donkeys, and the dislocation from anything recognizable in my former world, I listened to this record over and over on a cheap boom box. Like Egypt itself, the music felt exotic, otherworldly, and magnificent. At times, Yorke’s extraordinary voice competed with the muezzin’s daily call to prayer in my neighborhood in the evenings’ dusk. Ecstatic, Arabic chatter swallowed up by Radiohead’s glorious din. Inscrutable as the Sphinx if not as monumental as the Pyramids, which sat 20-minutes from my living room, OK Computer offers sublime grandeur amongst the ruins of modern life. I still remember me and my girlfriend listening to “Let Down” on repeat play, with its disillusioned crescendos of grace cascading down in chimes of Jonny Greenwood’s spiked guitar arpeggios. It’s a holy moment made even more sacred for me by the ancient land where I lived.
Years trampled by, and Radiohead moved on, as I did. Now back in the States, and like many of us, buried alive these years in the avalanche of Bush’s perpetual state of corrupt incompetence. I still buy their records, from Kid A, Amnesiac, to Hail to the Thief, but the bloom is now gone.
Radiohead’s more recent music, including Yorke’s solo debut, feels like one long coda of inertia. Emotions are muted and choked down into blips on a radar screen. Guitars have been subsumed by techno beats and samples, and Yorke’s voice bleats on in tones of carefully measured resignation. “Everything in its Right Place”, I suppose. Certain songs still stand out, like the aforementioned one, but as a whole the overall tone of their last few records is one of solipsism and defeat. It’s insidious and inescapable.
Anthems of despair have been turned inside out to become electronic odes of icy, disaffected beauty—or music to a post-modern internet soundtrack of surrender. Even the song titles, “How to Disappear Completely”, now tell their story. Rage transformed into entropy. Communication is no longer the priority; nihilistic detachment is. Of course, it reflects the cold, self-absorbed, apathetic age we live in, but a little of this goes a long way; since the millennium, it’s practically all Radiohead has given us.
Like the bands I mentioned before, at the height of their popular success, Radiohead downshifted gears out of necessity, and you can’t fault them for that. Once contenders and now champions, they’ve tossed off their heavyweight yoke and opted for distance, removing themselves from the fray. To be fair, their integrity still remains intact, and their recent music has been influential on the global scale. Inevitably, they’ve been replaced by rote, pretty pretenders like Coldplay, Radiohead-lite bands if you will, who really aren’t even in the same weight class.
One more aspect to consider is how high Radiohead have raised the bar in the rock world’s commercial sweepstakes, as well as critical expectations. Who would have guessed that this difficult, demanding music, typified by Kid A, would storm the charts with a bullet to #1 upon release? Though it’s far from my favorite record, I recognize the achievement.
Sophistication and the pop charts are rarely muttered in the same breath unless as paradox. Insight and depth are usually lepers on the hit parade. So it’s quite something to find Yorke’s strangled yelps and electronic symphony gliding in ahead of the Nickelbacks, Toby Keiths, and Kid Rocks of the world. We reward mediocrity. Just gauge our elections, as well as our blockbuster charts, for proof. In fact, Radiohead’s success beggars belief in a country whose collective intellect and memory lately seem to decrease annually, sorry to say.
This leads me to Radiohead’s most recent masterstroke—their first in quite a while, the surprise internet release of In Rainbows. In an unprecedented move, the band boldly bypassed the corporate middleman, and has made their record only available by downloading it for a price to be determined by their audience. It’s a clever bit of marketing for sure, as well as a generous gesture to their fanbase, and their example will soon be followed by other bands. But Radiohead proved how tech-savvy they are a long time ago. The notion that In Rainbows will be re-released the traditional way next year doesn’t take away from their trendsetting.

In Rainbows is Radiohead’s seventh record, and if you divide their career into stages, as I am, it’s the start of their third act, though not necessarily their final one. After all, Hamlet’s got nothing on Yorke‘s neurotic melodramas. Nigel Godrich, their usual producer of choice, also collaborated on this one with the band. Some of these songs, like “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, have been floating around for years in different incarnations. I remember hearing “15 Step” at Bonnaroo in 2006 with Yorke spinning around the stage like a mad marionette in the Tennessee summer heat. Glowsticks arced through the darkness like arrows as the multi-hued attack of their sonic boom lit up that fevered night.
After listening to In Rainbows for a few weeks now, and letting its textures marinade in my mind, what still startles me is how restrained it feels. Besides the opening shots of “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” with the throbbing bass and amped rock riffs cracking the songs open, on the whole it’s amazingly subdued with keyboards as the dominant instrument. Not that that has to be a bad thing, mind you.
I appreciate the spare, elegant dynamics of these new songs, especially the gorgeous ballads like “All I Need” and “House of Cards.” This record is much less frenetic or enraged than Hail to the Thief, and Yorke’s quicksilver falsetto haunts these melodies in fragile quivers. In the mode of earlier slow stunners like “Exit Music” and “No Surprises”, Yorke includes another of his patented wrist-slitters, “Videotape”, as the moody swan song. Don’t listen to this near a bridge, whatever you do.
And crucially, unlike a few of their last records, In Rainbows doesn’t sound as if it was recorded on electronic laptop loops frozen in place. You get the sense of five musicians playing some of these songs live in the studio—an old-fashioned value these days, I realize, but still a welcome one. Somehow that organic vibe opens the music up, making it much less claustrophobic than recent efforts.
It must be exhausting to shoot for total innovation every time out, and In Rainbows backs off that particular quest. It’s probably a relief for them to gather a dozen songs together and just let them fly with little fanfare. Hell, it’s a relief for me anyway. It’s true there are no readymade anthems here, or songs you might instantly add to Radiohead’s canon of classics. But maybe that’s less important now and not what they’re motivated to do anymore. With its score of minimalist, quality ballads, In Rainbows feels more accessible with its low-key arrangements, yet at the same time still challenges us with its trademark angst. In Radiohead’s world, and maybe even in our own, the apocalypse is always looming, whether Big Brother, Bush, the Bomb, or some personal meltdown, pre- or post-apocalyptic is the only question.
In Rainbows is a minor-key collection that keeps Radiohead relevant, while still hinting at sounds to come and new identities to assume. It’s the deep breath after the storm, when you take stock and realize you’ve survived intact. And I can’t help feeling that bodes well for future projects. Simply enduring the gauntlets of hype, of expectations, and coming out on the other side is feat enough, especially for a misanthrope like Yorke. Ask the Stones, U2, or REM, mega-bands that periodically found themselves sinking in the mire of what came before (past glories) measured against what comes now (uncertain, new endeavors).
Radiohead is no longer the same band, which probably fits, because I’m no longer the same person, and neither is the world. But if there’s room to imagine, there’s room to keep evolving. At their weakest, Radiohead’s music can be insular, self-negating, and almost beside the point. But at their best, their music is transcendent, even visionary. And Radiohead is still game, still willing. That might just be enough for now.

Greg Gaston

Permalink Leave a Comment