Monday, November 12, 2007

The new Radiohead

At Sara's wise suggestion, I'm going to post my review of In Rainbows from the Raleigh Hatchet. It saves me a blog idea, and the two or three of you who read this blog who haven't already read it in the Hatchet might find it useful and/or saucy:

"I paid 3 pounds. Not because I'm cheap, which I am, but primarily because its a download, the bitrate is slow, there's only 10 songs, and no artwork is included. Not even a cover. In principle - and I'm a principled man - I should’ve supported the band's visionary, envelope-pushing blah blah blah. The truth is, I entered 4 pounds and the site crashed on me, so I decided to deduct a pound for my trouble. Welcome to the digital frontier!

Its wholly unsettling to download albums without the tactile pleasure of a CD tray, an insert, lyrics sometimes -- a visual representation to couch the whole thing in a physical context. I grew up with vinyl, Michael Jackson lounging with a baby Bengal tiger on cheap, shiny black cardboard, which would then be hung on the wall and deciphered while the needle found its groove. He and the baby Bengal hung out with me each time we listened to the glory of “P.Y.T.” and “Human Nature.” Whenever I couldn’t figure out why Billie Jean said he was the one, I’d look at Michael’s reassuring grin and realize all was well. These days, iTunes gives us a Flash-based digital artwork “booklet” to fiddle with...a poor substitute, to be sure, but it's something to look at while we listen.

Radiohead doesn't think we need any of that. So…what do we touch? What do we hang on the wall? Are there walls anymore? Is this thing even an album? What does the music look like? Is it a leak they're charging us for, or is it the real thing?

The answer is YES. This is a real, honest-to-god Radiohead album. It’s brief, and the first time you spin it, you might find it too understated, maybe even unremarkable. There is no “Creep” or “Fake Plastic Trees” or “Paranoid Android” or even a “Pyramid Song” to hang your hat on. This is not a record of singles. Like Kid A, it ebbs and flows. Unlike Kid A, it has no highlights. Like “Fake Plastic Trees,” it’s beautiful, unique, a moving confluence of melody and meaning. Unlike fake plastic trees, it grows on you.

At first, In Rainbows sounds like a bunch of demos, sketches, touched lightly by Nigel Godrich's glowing E.T. fingers. But after awhile, you hear a sort of aural fractal -- sounds getting deeper, resonating, echoing, turning in on themselves, revealing bigger themes, bigger tones, a big, singular, colorful, ever-expanding picture. Beautiful bits of puzzle with no box to work with. This is the beauty of this band -- this is what Radiohead do. And we are fools to deconstruct it, but that is what we do.

They waste no time by shooting us into their orbit straight away with "15 Step" and "Bodysnatchers." In the former, Thom sidesteps the march of crunching beats, Jonny waltzes around him in the left channel, a quicker version of their pas de deux in "Scatterbrain" from the last record. Colin dives in with a short jumble of bass, just briefly, enough to remind you there's a band at work here. It becomes a speedy British bossa nova. Children cheer, Thom's voice echoes. Things veer away into something else. Chords modulate, the drums stop.

Jonny rips some chunky notes, cloaked in rust. Phil kicks in with some human rhythm, and Thom goes haywire. This is the way we remember them, back when the guitars sounded like guitars. It comes out of nowhere. Jonny rips strings out trying to keep up with Phil. Thom whines, howls. "I've no idea what I am talking about!" he yelps. "I'm trapped in this body. I can't get out!" You're moving along with it all, head nodding furiously. Then, the noise winds down, stops. It's over before it began, and Nigel returns us into a gentle bed of humming tones.

A voice slides in, floating, like an airborne castrato. "Don't get any big ideas," Thom intones over a gentle, plaintive strum. "They're not gonna happen." But the song is all big ideas, heavenly rays piercing banks of clouds. The strings sweep in, unnoticed, transforming into shimmering guitar and whistling Godrichisms. Thom's voice doubles, triples, multiplies into a glorious boy's choir, ending on a hymnal high. That's "Nude."

Phil starts into a trot, a steady clip, and Thom sighs approval. Jonny plays quick arpeggi, triplets rising and falling in varied chord progressions, joined by Ed’s own watery arpeggi. This is "Arpeggi."

Then it’s “All I Need,” which is quite beautiful. “Faust ARP,” a quick, gorgeous sweep. “Reckoner” -- lovely.

And this is where I tune out. It’s clear that despite the glowing sounds coming out of my speakers, Thom’s overarching theme is one of alienation, loss, and confusion. Missed connections, letdowns, breakdowns in communication. This, also, is what Radiohead do. You hear the stunning, inventive musicality, the way it interlocks with Thom’s vocalizations, and you might find hope settling in among the lines of despair.

But you also might wonder if Thom will ever sing about anything else. You might wonder what Radiohead would be like with more interstellar bursts of universe-saving energy like “Airbag” and fewer bouts of inscrutable alienation as evidenced by virtually every track on In Rainbows. No other band has been as successful in crystallizing its alienation in these troubled times while throwing their syntax in the blender. But because we’ve become accustomed to Radiohead throwing everything else in the blender as well, maybe our expectations are out of whack.

At this point, I get the sense that In Rainbows is a series of pretty Radiohead songs with no standout to hold onto, with a huge, rocking B-side (“Bodysnatchers”) wedged in to give the album some much-needed balls. I decide to remove “Bodysnatchers” and listen to it again. (If there is no cohesive physical construct to this puppy, I can mess with it however I please.)

But something is missing. It’s too calm, too slow, too one-note. “Bodysnatchers” goes back in. And while it remains an anomaly, it’s a much needed one. Thom shrieks, with hog-tied rage, a declaration that atomizes and floats like dust motes in the scattered rays of sunlight found in the rest of the album: IT’S THE 21ST CENTURY, he says. I’M ALIVE.

Every inscrutable album has a key that unlocks it, and “Bodysnatchers” is that key for me. It soon becomes my favorite song, shortly followed by the rest. Each song is thrown into new relief – instead of sounding vaguely conflicted and very pretty, the songs begin to come to life. Soon, all the songs seem to make small declarations. This is what good albums are supposed to do. They reveal glimpses of the big picture, whatever it is, and the rest of it is up to you to find.

Radiohead has chosen to provide no guidance or comfort in terms of album art, and they leave it up to us to figure out how much we value what they do. So finally, we look to the music itself, and we each start from our own place."

No comments: