[24 August 2009]
In 1997, Radiohead’s OK Computer accomplished the seemingly irreconcilable twin tasks of lyrically addressing the alienation of a current youth generation (roughly those of us born in the 1980s), while sonically completing the guitar rock aspirations of a past generation (our parents). The overestimated association of OK Computer with Dark Side of the Moon speciously bridges this generational divide, but it also fails to address how much of a gulf that gap truly is. Although the interventions of punk, metal, rap, and electronic music suggest some continuum that links the youthful rebellion of the classic rock era to the way we live now, the cultural shift is too large to keep the relay running. Fittingly, the album’s full-scale terrestrial panic is deathly but inviting as it bemoans the abyss and welcomes oblivion.
In the years directly following the rapturous reception of OK Computer, Radiohead wearied from the repetitive touring cycle, interviews and set lists. Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People is Easy, released in 1999, disproportionately featured this ennui and created a public image of disillusioned rock stars. Skewed personas aside, what becomes clear is that, as observers and interpreters of modern civilized society, the band (usually represented by front man Thom Yorke) seemed to have moved from a Douglas Coupland approach to that of Dr. Manhattan. Regarding new material, some of which appears in rough form in Gee’s film, the band used most of its on-the-record comments to describe what the songs are not: They’re not post-rock, not progressive rock, and not driven by concept or character. These various denials that built up around the band and its approach are frustrating because at some point the whole enterprise must be about something—after all, why keep making the music if there are no more aims and the returns have diminished to zero? What to do at a misanthropic low? Dr. Manhattan takes off for Mars, and Radiohead records Kid A.
Released in October 2000, Kid A is indeed the sound of beyond, of ascension, of a clean break with the conspicuously guitar driven mode the band perfected in the mid-to-late 1990s. There are endless millennial musings one could interpret, but the band’s refusal to define (or even traditionally publicize) its new identity makes hot air of the analysis. Fundamentally, the band confronts the X, Y, and Z generations that it collected as followers in the last century with a year zero for their common musical era. This is a risk that resets expectations for what a rock album should be, and the risk is even more intense coming from possible heirs to the U2 big important rock throne. Additionally, while Kid A boldly refuses to capitalize on the success of OK Computer‘s accessible sound, the album does push the disturbed reactions to modern life in an even darker direction. So there is also the great potential for the album to be perceived as wallowing in the misery that Radiohead’s detractors cite as the band’s default mode.
Kid A marks the beginning of a reactionary period for the band. Confounded by reviews and unauthorized biographies that read more like hagiographies, Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, bass player Colin Greenwood, guitar player Ed O’Brien, drummer Phil Selway, and producer Nigel Godrich create, as Colin describes, an “acoustic-based record that has been digitally manipulated afterward”. Much more could be written about the source of the sounds, but in the end that description suffices. Taking many listeners by surprise is the degree to which the band embraces what some might call the artifice of that manipulation. Godrich says, “we mainly used the Mac as an instrument to create new sounds or treat things to make new sounds rather than using it as a multitrack device.”
In addition to an inventive use of Pro Tools and other hardware/software, another of Kid A‘s rich accomplishments is the band’s utilization of instruments and inspirations that lie outside of rock’s aesthetic and historical boundaries in order to create the sensation of newness. In some instances, such as the Ondes Martenot, even several-decades-old sounds are heralded as fresh. Also, though the overall worldview has not brightened, on Kid A Yorke concedes—owing debt to Dada—that words are often more effective as sounds rather than carriers of associative meanings. The execution of these elements could add up to something distant and overly intellectual if Radiohead didn’t (despite itself?) retain a learned pop sensibility and unparalleled ear for beauty. Other exceptional deal-breaker albums like Lou Reed’s angry Metal Machine Music or Sleep’s exhausting Dopesmoker are magnificent in their uncompromised vision, but Kid A‘s synthesis of the unexpected fringe with traditional rhythmic and melodic points of entry is what ultimately elevates the album to the band’s best and a true work of art.
An element that ties the far reaches of the album together is its intricate focus on cycles. Although the album does not have one overarching aesthetic, the repetition of lyrics and chopped up bits of recorded music (in addition to the yielding to digital processes) creates a convergence of meaning even when there is little traditional lyrical or musical development. “Everything in Its Right Place” is not a statement of purpose, but it accidentally becomes one. To look for deep revelations in Yorke’s “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” and “there are two colours in my head” is to miss the point. The phrases sound like nonsense, and if the listener is not aware of the singer’s sour mood following OK Computer, then the expressions are not connected to any concrete experience. Actual context isn’t necessary, as the song’s concluding, “What was that you tried to say? / Tried to say / Tried to say” expresses both the emotional paralysis of the songwriter and the confused reaction of the listener. At the risk of an abstruse interpretation herein, it seems that the rules for experiencing Kid A are so loose and varied it is not worthwhile to name them. Indeed, the enjoyment of each song deepens once the listener realizes that the woe is me alternative rock rulebook has been shredded.
Moving ahead with its unique manipulations, repetitions, and various cycles, the largely self-contained world of Kid A does benefit from occasionally touching upon associations that lead to what could be called a second tier of appreciation. The title track—a macabre lullaby/music box number with skittering percussion—drastically warps Yorke’s voice in a way that compels the listener’s close attention. The pairing of lyrics “we’ve got heads on sticks” with “you’ve got ventriloquists” is an inspired parallelism, and “rats and children follow me out of town” plays on the listener’s remembrance of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Structurally, the song adapts (in its third minute) a technique Yorke claims to admire in other electronic music—a break that mostly subtracts the song’s beat and delays its return, to climactic effect.
In “The National Anthem”, an unremitting eight-player brass section that forms around the bass riff is not so different from the guitars that swelled throughout earlier Radiohead releases. Falling even more within somewhat familiar territory is the luxuriant and mournful “How to Disappear Completely”, on which strings weep and a bass line gently, reliably rises and falls. The ethereal quality of the song, and its satisfying crescendos, elevate what could have been just another song about how hard it is to be a touring musician. O’Brien’s guitar on “Treefingers” takes on the character of a Brian Eno ambient work and provides an excellent comedown, as well as a segue to the album’s second half.
Guitars are more recognizable on “Optimistic”, another number that evokes the Radiohead of the past. Also, Selway finally has a chance to come to the fore. Not surprisingly, this is the album’s highest-charting song on the Billboard modern rock chart. The song’s structure is more traditional but festooned with experimental touches such as the Ondes Martenot and the brief but thrilling manipulation of Yorke’s voice on “prison ship”. The Shipping Forecast intro to “In Limbo” sets up a fantastic variation on the album’s cycles, throwing the listener into the waves to be bashed about. While the repetitive guitar lines aren’t violent in tone, they (along with Yorke’s voice) eventually reach a maelstrom and wash away.
The one track on Kid A that guarantees to get the crowd moving is also one of its more poignant. “Idioteque” is a fantastic example of what Jonny Greenwood calls “making music with music”. “Idioteque” resurrects two works—Arthur Kreiger’s “Short Piece” and Paul Lansky’s “Mild Und Leise”—from a mid-1970s LP called First Recordings - Electronic Music Winners. The sampling of small portions of those two pieces, particularly Lansky’s four chords, leaves an ineradicable sweet spot in the listener’s mind. A captivating contrast develops from the combination of a repeated, brief (in Lansky’s piece, ephemeral) tonal section with a pronounced drum and bass pattern. Lyrically, the song could be about the end times or a natural or man made disaster, but again, the claustrophobic feeling they create is more important than their literal meaning. “Idioteque” forms a more direct connection with Kid A‘s violent landscape artwork than any other song on the album.
A domestic dissolution seems to inform “Morning Bell”, in a far darker manner than the subject matter does on The Bends’ “Black Star”. Selway’s drums are key to the song’s propulsion, which is fitting since this is their last appearance on the album. Final track “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is perhaps the best evidence that Radiohead cannot resist indulging in the passionate and human, even on an album that was borne in part from a discomfort with emotional expression. Pro Tooling about with intricate beats and obfuscated vocals can manufacture feeling and meaning to groundbreaking effect, but there’s no substitute for an organ, harps, and a heartfelt lead vocal. Although “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is in reality no more than the sum of its acoustic and digital means, it somehow feels more human than everything that precedes it. A song with finale written all over it, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a source of pathos and a vessel to the transcendence that has been hinted at throughout the album. Death is the song’s focus, but the closing chorus of angels and final line “I will see you in the next life” indicates that this is not a depressing leave-taking. Something else is on the horizon. Life and death, too, form a cycle. Ambiguous in purpose, a “hidden” piece of music follows a long silence after the song’s seeming final notes of resolution. The nothingness that precedes and follows this additional material it is in keeping with the album’s impulse to retrain the listener’s ear, even to the sounds of pure digital silence.
Less than a year after Kid A is released to unlikely commercial success (especially rare considering its lack of traditional marketing tools), Radiohead release Amnesiac. Most of the tracks on Amnesiac were recorded at the same time as Kid A, and even though this fact is widely known and reported, many claim that the album will be a return to the band’s guitar rock glory. This wishful thinking—also one of the most persistent and reliably false rumours of the decade—results in an album every bit as open to experimentation as its predecessor.
Amnesiac kicks off with “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”, which features some of the same bounce found on “Idioteque” and superficially revisits one of Yorke’s longtime lyrical fixations: the car crash. There are also a couple of lines repeated over and over—“I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case”. Another element that links the song to the sonic world of Kid A is the near-total lack of discernable rock instrumentation. But the piano-led “Pyramid Song”, a high point of the album at track two, would not sound out of place on OK Computer, an album which is beginning to sound like “classic rock” itself at this point in Radiohead’s career. “Pyramid Song” unfolds with one reward after another, combining a few simple but rhythmically elusive piano chords with Yorke’s falsetto. Eventually the ghostly Ondes Martenot and orchestra join and complement his voice. But the star of “Pyramid Song” is Selway, whose captivating drums perplex the listener’s interpretation of the song’s time signature. A close inspection reveals that the song is in most ways very straightforward, but the rhythm section (Selway along with Colin Greenwood on upright bass) creates the illusion of formlessness or suspended animation.
“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is a world away from “Pyramid Song”, and it continues to reveal the non-rock influences that made an impression on the band after OK Computer. Yorke’s appreciation of Aphex Twin and Autechre is most obvious on a song like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, and Jonny Greenwood’s interest in the Ink Spots’ sound/production is apparent on the dozy “You and Whose Army?” All of these variants create a sense of genre hopping that would weaken a lesser band’s identity. But following Kid A, the effect is actually very pleasing in the sense that the band (and by extension the listener) becomes acquainted/reacquainted with a variety of tastes that the band credibly performs. Throughout Amnesiac, there is a retrospective view of experience that is not present on Kid A, even if the album concerns the same period or type of experience. This direct confrontation of the past, its effects, and realities of the present, is in some ways preferable to the numbness and denial of the 2000 album, but there is also a scattershot quality that prevents Amnesiac from attaining Kid A‘s level of total cohesion.
As if anticipating a perceived lack of accord and accessibility, the mid-point of the album contains its two catchiest tracks, both unsurprisingly featuring electric guitars. U.S. single “I Might be Wrong” uses a repeated riff and lively drum and bass, revealing the groovy direction the band will later take on tracks from In Rainbows. The past/present design pops up lyrically here with “There is no future left at all / I used to think” and “Think about the good times and never look back”. Sounding more like the mid-1990s Radiohead than anything else on Amnesiac is the allegedly Smiths-influenced “Knives Out”, another single with a comparative lack of complication and manipulation. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” recycles “Morning Bell” from Kid A, but the song loses a lot of its muscle here. And “Dollars & Cents”—driven by a bass line that is distractingly reminiscent of Air’s “La Femme d’Argent”—fails to take off.
This brief loss of footing is firmly corrected with Amnesiac‘s final three tracks. It is convenient to call “Hunting Bears” the “Treefingers” of this album, and the song does serve a similar palate-cleansing function. But more than that, the mysterious atmosphere the song creates is indispensable in setting up the ominous “Like Spinning Plates”, which is by far the most successful result of Radiohead’s studio adventurousness in this period. Returning to the despairing confusion of Kid A, “Like Spinning Plates” is in effect that album’s late-breaking, returning culmination, employing the imagined sound of spinning plates and reversing tracks from the song “I Will”, which does not appear on the album. The combination of those dizzying elements with Yorke’s backwards/forwards vocal recording leads to a song that sounds new each time you hear it—truly the song of an amnesiac.
On finale “Life in a Glasshouse”, Radiohead takes a different approach than it has on any other song in two albums’ worth of stylistic tests and departures. Best described as “New Orleans funeral music” by jazz trumpeter and bandleader Humphrey Lyttelton (who appears on the song with his band to incalculable effect), the song is a showier, more sonically intense farewell than rose-colored death sendoff “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. As Yorke sings about familiar concerns like surveillance, celebrity and disposable culture, the guest musicians build to a fury on trumpet, trombone, clarinet, double bass and drums. Heads nod and fingers snap, but any positive resolution is spurious, because “someone’s listening in”.
Quickly recorded mostly in Los Angeles, 2003’s Hail to the Thief is a looser affair. Recording live, coming alive, and more obviously a part of this world than Kid A and Amnesiac, the Radiohead of Hail to the Thief is at a crossroads. The album has too many great moments to be dismissed as a total mixed bag, but its first half suffers from awkward sequencing and a lack of fresh inspiration or execution. It is puzzling that the band, normally so judicious in editing LPs and generous with EPs and singles material, did not relegate some of the less essential album songs to those catchall formats.
“2+2=5” seemingly signals the band’s long-rumoured return to up-tempo guitar rock. Especially satisfying is the transition from breakdown “It’s the devil’s way now / There is no way out” into the “You have not been paying attention” onslaught. And although “Sit Down. Stand Up.” peaks early and promisingly with Yorke’s multitracked vocals, the “rain drops” section that ends the song kills whatever energy it has developed up to that point. In contrast to the purposeful lyrical repetition of Kid A and Amnesiac, on “Sit Down. Stand Up.” the effect is cumbersome. “Sail to the Moon”—a moving message from a father to a child—revisits the sounds of “Pyramid Song”. Connecting to Yorke’s real life experience more immediately than a lot of his inscrutable lyrics, the song opens up to the listener in a way that causes the inwardness of following track “Backdrifts” to disappoint by comparison. “Backdrifts” is not a throwaway number, but like “Sit Down. Stand Up.” its execution is overlong and it impedes the momentum created by the previous song.
“Where I End and You Begin” and “We Suck Young Blood” form an interesting contrast in the middle of the album. On “Where I End and You Begin”, a song about some sort of ill-fated relationship, Selway is again vital to the energy of the song, and all of the players powerfully coalesce a couple of times. The U2 comparison makes more sense here than it has in quite some time. “We Suck Young Blood”, on the other hand, plays like a dirge variation on “Life in a Glasshouse”. There are no jubilant horns. The song does, however, incorporate multiple vocal tracks and some fantastic layers of piano and other percussion (including handclaps) that develop in surprising directions. Conversely, the obligatory experimentation of “The Gloaming” interrupts what would be an otherwise strong run towards the final series of songs.
The golden section of Hail to the Thief begins with first single “There There”, in which a paranoid lyrical landscape meets a lively rhythm and increasingly distorted electric guitar lines. “There There” could be considered a sort of follow-up to the territory “In Limbo” explores on Kid A. “I Will” is another song that shares a fairly direct relationship to previously released tracks, as it was reversed to create the basis for “Like Spinning Plates” and makes reference to the “bunker” of “Idioteque”. Whereas “Idioteque” is mad with incoherent indecision over some calamity, the singer of “I Will” recognizes the need to stay calm in the face of increased stakes: “I won’t let this happen to my children”. After the strong rejection of narrative and character by Kid A and Amnesiac, this straightforward and personal approach is what works best on Hail to the Thief. “A Punchup at a Wedding” continues the resolve of “I Will”, as Yorke confronts an unwelcome visitor. The “hypocrite opportunist” of the song—like many of Radiohead’s lyrical targets—could have a fixed persona or political identity, but speculating about such a real-life counterpart is beside the point. The song works, period.
Delivering the album’s biggest surprise is “Myxomatosis”, which seems to make reference to the effects of the titular disease. For its duration, the song has the force of the loud end of “Exit Music” or the bass line of “The National Anthem”. “Scatterbrain” is yet another song that depicts a cataclysmic atmosphere, but Yorke keeps the concept fresh by walking directly into the storm. The final song, “A Wolf at the Door”, juxtaposes a variety of threats, among them physical attack and kidnapping, with a skewering of lazy rich businessmen and their wives. The second verse of the song could be an obnoxious screed against corporate masters, except that Yorke doesn’t fully exempt himself and seems to shift between villain and victim within the song. His delivery stays in lockstep with the rhythm. There’s something predictive in the “finances and family” thrust of “A Wolf at the Door”—a song that increasingly connects to the troubled economies and psychologies of civilized society.
The expanded reissues of these three albums by Capitol/EMI will have some listeners railing against a perceived corporate greed. While the label and company will indeed benefit from reissuing the CDs in Collectors Editions and Special Collectors Editions, there is no disputing that Capitol/EMI took their own considerable risks in getting behind these works in the first place. The label and company deserve some credit for their efforts in pushing albums like Kid A and Amnesiac into the mainstream and to the top of the charts. If the reissues do not carry the band members’ blessing, then that is a quandary that is difficult to resolve without a substantial discussion about business ethics. Nevertheless, the band has moved on to its own profitable form of marketing and semi-self distribution and Capitol/EMI do justice to the original works with these newly repackaged versions. In short, folks should vote with their dollar (and subjective code of conduct) on this kind of product.
Much of the additional audio material on these reissues will be familiar to fans that have collected and attempted to “complete” the bands discography over time. Since Kid A was not supported by singles in its original release, there are no B-sides. Instead, its Collectors Edition bonus content includes selections from performances in 2000-2001. The first set of songs is from a BBC Radio One Evening Session. This version of “Everything in its Right Place” is noteworthy for its looped keyboards and vocals. “How to Disappear Completely” also translates inventively to the live setting. There is an interpretation of “Idioteque” from this session, but the song lacks the punch it normally has when performed live. The highlights from Kid A‘s bonus audio disc are from a Canal+ Studios performance, during which the band blazes through almost the entire studio album (minus “Optimistic”, “Treefingers” and the title track). A rough-around-the-edges “Motion Picture Soundtrack” especially shines. The bonus disc closes with the performance of “True Love Waits” that was previously released on I Might Be Wrong - Live Recordings. A Special Collectors Edition of Kid A includes both audio discs, plus a DVD of “The National Anthem”, “Morning Bell”, and “Idioteque” from Later…With Jools Holland.
Unlike Kid A, tracks from Amnesiac were released as singles with B-sides and rarities. The “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” singles are represented on the Amnesiac Collectors Edition bonus disc with eight songs that rival the excellence of the OK Computer-era singles and EPs. From “Pyramid Song”, “Trans-atlantic Drawl” plays like a lyrical precursor to “A Wolf at the Door” and contains a sharp transition just after the midpoint that is similar to the stylistic clash at the end of Sparklehorse’s matchless “Pig”. “Fast-track” loops clipped portions of words in a way that (consistent with the albums) foregrounds sound rather than meaning. “Kinetic” possibly reveals the influence of Yorke’s collaborations with DJ Shadow and James Lavelle. The “Knives Out” B-sides “Worrywort” and “Fog” are calmer, with “Fog” (formerly “Alligators in New York Sewers”) making an impression as a song that could have definitely been released on either Kid A or Amnesiac. Additionally, the full-length version of “Life in a Glasshouse” is a thrill.
This bonus disc contains six selections from the same Canal+ Studios concert that yielded the Kid A bonus live tracks, and the Amnesiac versions are also uniformly great. The guitar-enhanced “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” surpasses the studio track in some ways. Finally, this disc includes one selection from I Might Be Wrong - Live Recordings—an ineffably moving piano alteration of “Like Spinning Plates”. Listen for the enthusiastic audience member who recognizes the song and shouts its name out in ecstasy before Yorke starts singing. Those who purchase the Special Collectors Edition of Amnesiac also receive a DVD with promotional videos for “Pyramid Song”, “Knives Out”, “I Might Be Wrong”, and “Push Pulk/Spinning Plates” as well as live performances from Top of the Pops and Later…With Jools Holland.
Finally, the Collectors Edition of Hail to the Thief gathers B-sides from singles “There There”, “Go to Sleep”, and “2+2=5”. The electronic experimentation of “Where Bluebirds Fly” and “I Am Citizen Insane” hold up nicely, but the most worthwhile material here consists of remixed or alternate variations of previously released album tracks. Hence, “Fog (Again) - Live” and “I Will (Los Angeles Version)” reinforce how fundamentally good those songs are and Cristian Vogel’s “Remyxomatosis” and Four Tet’s “Skttrbrain” breathe new life into “Myxomatosis” and “Scatterbrain”, respectively. Live versions of “Sail to the Moon”, “2+2=5”, and “Go to Sleep” round out the content of the bonus audio CD. The Special Collectors Edition of Hail to the Thief contains a four-song Later…With Jools Holland appearance and music videos for “There There”, “Go to Sleep”, “2+2=5”, “Sit Down. Stand Up.” and “2+2=5 (Live at Belfort Festival)”.