Reviews

Radiohead Music Theory, Pure and Simple

The most intelligent bunch of musicians to ever sell out an arena are the subject of rich, in-depth critical analysis. Have a highlighter and headphones handy.


Everything in Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: $24.95
Author: Brad Osborn
Length: 220 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-11
Affiliate
Amazon

The basic career arc of Radiohead -- as unique as it is -- has been chronicled in countless articles and reviews: an ambitious band of British 20somethings release a decent Britpop debut album (Pablo Honey) in 1993, emboldened by a freak hit (“Creep”). This is followed by an even stronger sophomore album, The Bends, and a few more college radio mainstays (“High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”). Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Radiohead to continue churning out the same guitar-heavy alt rock, resulting in an indifferent fan base and eventual irrelevance.

But in 1997, something interesting happened. Radiohead unleashed their third album, and from an artistic standpoint, OK Computer was a quantum leap forward, leaving the previous two albums in the dust. Since the release of that epochal, paradigm-shifting masterpiece, Radiohead was never the same again. Version 2.0 was the new standard, and they rewrote the rule book by essentially throwing it out the window. They were no longer contemporaries to lesser bands like Oasis, The Verve, or Suede. They were a genre all to themselves.

Calling Radiohead the most important band since the Beatles -- and many have -- isn’t off the mark. This is a band (with the still-intact lineup of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway) for which there is no sonic equivalent. Their influences aren’t just pop and rock -- their musical stew mixes in the cacophonous jazz of Charles Mingus and Alice Coltrane, the bold classical dissonance of Olivier Messiaen and Krsysztof Penderecki, the hypnotic krautrock of Can and Kraftwerk, and a host of electronic and experimental ideas that when combined, can only be Radiohead.

Needless to say, the music of Radiohead -- which manages to both satiate fans with typical motifs in addition to shattering expectations with every new release -- is ripe for deep critical analysis. Brad Osborn, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Kansas, has written what is quite possibly the definitive critical assessment of the band. Everything in Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead is a granular, often dizzying exploration of the various aspects of the band’s music. This isn’t a biography, and it doesn’t even really delve much into lyrics. This is music theory, pure and simple.

Will Radiohead fans with little to no knowledge of musicology enjoy this book? In my opinion, yes: if they’re willing to work a little for it. The basic tenets of music theory are explained, to some degree, although you may occasionally find yourself going back a few pages to have something re-explained to you. You could even do what I did and keep a highlighter handy. I realize it sounds like a bit of a task, especially if you’re not getting college credit for it, but the music of Radiohead is full of such Byzantine complexity that it demands this kind of scrutiny. Also, the payoff is satisfying: it affords fans the opportunity to hear the music in a completely different light. Osborn even gives Radiohead fans credit ahead of time: “I generally assume you all to be a pontificate, cerebral bunch,” he writes in the preface. “Rather than water down technical descriptions of this music, the technical apparatus of music theory is wielded with whatever tools strike me as most necessary for addressing the music.“

Largely bypassing the first two albums, Everything in Its Right Place analyzes OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), In Rainbows (2007), and The King of Limbs (2011). Last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool was released as the book was in production. “I occasionally reference features of these new songs that recall Radiohead’s work from 1997 to 2011,” Osborn writes, “but, alas, a more sustained analysis will have to wait for a second edition!”

Rather than approach the music chronologically, Osborn divides the book into four parts, breaking down distinct musical parameters: song form, rhythm, timbre and harmony. An additional chapter is added which is devoted entirely to one of Radiohead’s most complex pieces, “Pyramid Song” (a fan favorite that guitarist O’Brien once called “the best song we ever recorded”). Tacking this long-form analysis to the end of the book is a brilliant move: not only is the song a perfect specimen for the task of “checking under the hood,” as it were, it also gives the reader a chance to put the tools introduced in earlier chapters to good use.

The four main sections of the book do an admirable job of breaking down the songs in the applicable categories, both textually and through the use of figures and charts. In many cases, tables pick apart everything from “through-composed form in ‘2+2=5’” to “the macro- and micro-form of ‘Idioteque.’” In terms of form, Osborn writes at great length about the concept of the “terminally climactic form”, a process whereby the standard verse/chorus is met with a monumentally structured contrast at the song’s end. This form is used often in Radiohead songs and provides the kind of structural unpredictability that the band has been known for since they began conceptually shifting their sound 20 years ago.

Gear enthusiasts have plenty to chew on here. Guitar effects are scrutinized and there’s even in-depth analysis of all the times multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood used his favorite obscure vintage instrument, the Ondes Martenot. Needless to say, you’ll want the entire Radiohead catalog at your fingertips for reference as it definitely adds to the experience. The only time I felt the energy level begin to sag was during the rhythm and meter chapter, which involved an awful lot of math (and this is coming from someone who plays the drums, although the fact that I haven’t taken formal lessons in 30 years may have been a factor in my confusion). Otherwise Osborn’s analysis is refreshing and enthusiastically presented.

This isn’t the first critical assessment of Radiohead (some individual albums have already been the subject of analysis, thanks to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series). It certainly won’t be the last. As A Moon Shaped Pool showed us in 2016, Radiohead still has plenty of creative spark left, and as long as there are music obsessives still out there, there will be exciting, unique music available for analysis. Osborn has given fans the tools to study the music and has given what is probably the most intelligent bunch of musicians to ever sell out an arena their proper critical due.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.