Thursday, October 11, 2007

Radiohead: In Rainbows

Some time ago, I heard an interview with Thom Yorke in which he reflected on the fact that his band was inspiring a generation of listeners in the same way that his favorite bands – The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Talking Heads, R.E.M., etc. – had inspired him when he was a teenager. The most gratifying thing about all of this, he said, is realizing that the music is a vital part of people’s inner-lives.

Radiohead made its first big splash in the States with their 1993 single “Creep.” The video was in constant rotation on MTV, usually playing back to back with that Blind Melon video featuring the fat kid in the bumblebee outfit. After the success of “Creep,” the band was poised to become a one-hit-wonder, and they knew it. The stress of crafting a follow-up single almost destroyed the band. Much to the record company’s dismay, they decided not to worry about creating another standout single and focused instead on creating a cohesive album, which they produced themselves. The result was “The Bends,” a brilliantly textured, guitar-driven rock album. Within a few years, critics were calling Radiohead the band of the future. Their third album, “OK Computer,” wore this moniker on its sleeve – mixing the usual guitar riffs and pop hooks with space-age electronica. (Band members were listening to DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, and Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” during their recording sessions.)

I remember driving around Charlottesville one night, and being suddenly struck by the complexity of sound – at once unsettling and intimate – on their song “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” I’d heard the song several times before, but on that night the tune nuzzled its way into my psyche. It was February – cold as hell outside, but warm and dry inside the car. Fluorescent lighting danced off of the dirty windshield, looking like reflections of light from an alien spaceship in the night sky. I listened to the song over and over until I got where I was going. I experience music that way sometimes… I’ll listen to something I know I’ve heard before, but suddenly – for no particular reason - it seems completely new.

I’ve had similar experiences with each of the subsequent Radiohead albums. I was confused by “Kid A” the first few times I listened to it. Then I took it on an 8-hour drive to New Jersey and, by the end of the trip, I couldn’t get enough of it. That night I sat in a bar, making the pretentious argument that the band had expanded its emotional range, the way Led Zeppelin did when they moved from the straightforward bluesy rock of the Brown Bomber album to the folk-inspired sounds of Bron-Yr-Aur. The comparison isn’t entirely unjust: Like Led Zeppelin in the early seventies, Radiohead in the late nineties was suffering from overexposure after “OK Computer.” The only way for the band members to survive creatively was for them to crawl back inside themselves. That’s how “Kid A” sounds – embryonic, like a dream sequence in David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Sometimes, when I listen to it, I get an urge to paint abstract landscapes.

“Amnesiac” served as a companion piece to “Kid A.” It was even more experimental, suggesting that the band might go anywhere next. Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes for their sixth album – I didn’t know how much further the band could withdraw into themselves before they became incoherent and disappeared completely. “Hail to the Thief,” released in the summer of 2003, was a welcome surprise. It combined the distinctive sounds of all the earlier albums, from the hard-driving rock album “The Bends” to the sometimes-jazzy, sometimes-ambient, sometimes hopelessly abstract “Amnesiac.” With “Hail to the Thief,” I felt like I was listening to a band that had arrived at its fully-formed state.

A couple weeks ago, when I heard that Radiohead was about to release its new album, “In Rainbows,” I began to wonder: Can they pull it off again? The band has changed a lot since 1993. So has the music industry. So have I. Will their music still sneak up on me? Will this album veer off in a new direction, I wondered, or will it be like a visit from an old friend? I wasn’t sure which I’d prefer. In 1993, I regularly bought new albums out of sheer curiosity… These days, I rarely buy albums at all. I know what I like, and I don’t seek out new music as eagerly. At the same time, I see no need for an album that repeats what’s already been done. If the new music is derivative, I’ll stick with the old stuff.

While the marketing scheme for “In Rainbows” may be getting all the headlines, it’s the music that listeners care about… and, after a day with the album, I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. There are a few songs that already seem wonderfully familiar – the lush “All I Need” (especially its symphonic finale) and “Videotape.” The transition between the Beatles-esque song “Faust Arp” and “Reckoner” is also striking. But “In Rainbows” reminds me of R.E.M.’s melodic 1996 album “Up,” which I grew tired of within the first few weeks. Will it continue to live in my mind weeks from now – even years from now – the way Radiohead’s other albums do? Time will tell.

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