From The Bends in 1995 to Kid A in 2000, Radiohead morphed from an artsy, grandiose Britpop band to an artsy, grandiose avant-rock group. That’s the obvious story, and it’s true. But there’s another way to look at Radiohead’s metamorphosis: 1997’s OK Computer begins a progression from presence to absence, from assertiveness to near-disappearance.
Radiohead’s 1993 alt-pop hit "Creep" may now seem like a bizarre historical footnote, but to me it actually cuts to the core of their aesthetic. The trick with that song was that it asked "What the hell am I doing here?" while the music left no doubt that Radiohead knew exactly what they were doing there, with the wall-of-sound guitars, soaring falsetto and especially Jonny Greenwood’s guitar-hero chunka-chunkas before the chorus. It was kind of a ridiculous song, but there was something admirable about the way it attempted to cut through its own self-hatred.
The Bends stuck to the same script: here were songs about "Fake Plastic Trees" and "waiting for something to happen" that seemed to want to cut through plasticity, and that knew exactly what they wanted to happen. Musically, The Bends was all about confidence and clarity.
With OK Computer, though, Radiohead started erasing itself - Thom Yorke stopped enunciating, and started obscuring his voice with distortion. The songs still soared, though, and it seems to me that OK Computer is still so much-loved not only because of its dystopian theme, but because it’s basically coherent - the songs are still songs.
So the most important change from OK Computer to Kid A, for me, wasn’t that Radiohead started more thoroughly exploring electronics or free jazz. It was that they stopped writing songs, and in so doing, became more like their narrators: meek, introspective, and confused. I don’t mean that in an entirely pejorative sense, but I do feel like something’s been lost.
In Rainbows is pretty much exactly what we’d expect - not quite as strange as Kid A, not quite as rock-based as 2003’s Hail to the Thief, and not quite as paranoid as Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser. Like a lot of Radiohead’s recent material, it’s the sort of thing that might sound amazing live, but that doesn’t fare as well under the spotlight of high-fidelity recording.
The pieces - again, "songs" doesn’t really seem like the right word - mostly seem like the byproduct of jams, almost as if Yorke wrote his lyrics by singing a few catchphrases over and over until finding a couple that worked.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this - Can, Neu! and many others have proven that jamming can create great rock music. But there are two problems when Radiohead does it. One is that they don’t seem entirely committed to the idea: their jams come in four-minute slices, not enough to really get anywhere and not nearly enough to really get nowhere.
The other is that jamming doesn’t play to their strengths, which are Yorke’s voice and their twisting chord progressions and melodies. Those things are both present on In Rainbows, but they’re undercooked - Yorke mostly mumbles, and the chord progressions, though often lovely, are a couple stages removed from being sculpted into full songs.
The first track I actually felt like listening to twice in a row - and this was on my fourth spin through the album - was "Bodysnatchers," which is the hardest-rocking track. Unlike most of the others, it actually does rock - it sounds as if someone has shaken Yorke and Greenwood (who plays one of those trademark slippery lead guitar parts that we’ve heard so few of since "Paranoid Android") by the shoulders. And Yorke repeatedly screams the words "I don’t know what I am talking about," which made me think that perhaps I was being unfair, and that I should listen to the album again.
After all, if the music is supposed to mimic the lyrics (which, since OK Computer, have seemed to describe a world drowning in so much infotainment, bureaucracy and police-state bullshit that really communicating with or relating to anyone else is just about impossible), then maybe the music is supposed to sound confused and uncommunicative. Perhaps this explains why Yorke now slurs his words when he’s perfectly capable of saying them clearly, or why Radiohead’s music now seems like jams rather than songs.
If so, this is a complex idea, and all I can do is assert that I find it really frustrating. I’m not exactly sure why, but here are a few possible reasons.
2. I’m not completely sure about this one, but being unable to relate to people and feeling disillusioned are bad, unhealthy things, and so maybe if I want to listen to music that’s about being unable to relate or feeling disillusioned, I want the music to somehow cut through that disillusionment rather than reinforcing it.
3. Again, maybe Radiohead just aren’t the band to pull this off. They’ve dedicated a lot of their time the past seven years to making bleeps and bloops and space noises, which is fine except, again, that’s not what they’re good at.
In any case, I can’t shake the feeling that In Rainbows is like watching a great movie on an amazing flat-screen TV that I’m only allowed to watch while wearing glasses with the wrong prescription. (Which almost sounds like a the subject of a Radiohead song, come to think of it.) I can sense that there’s something pretty great going on and even briefly catch glimpses of it. But as an experience, it’s a little bit maddening, and eventually I’ll want to throw away the glasses and pick up a book.
By Charlie Wilmoth