I sat alone in my college library writing down something I didn’t care about while the track “Fake Plastic Trees” carefully played about through my ears. I stared out into the New Mexico desert and felt isolated, lonely, depressed, tired and distraught. Would I be able to make it through these four years of art school and become something successful? What is Thom Yorke singing about when he says, “A green plastic watering can / A fake Chinese rubber plant / In the fake plastic earth”? All I know is that I felt alienation, isolation, plastic, fakeness. Was I the one who was fake? What could I do to right this wrong?
The Bends is the second studio album by Radiohead. This was the follow-up to their debut, Pablo Honey, which contained the massive single “Creep”. What could a band do that would give enough justice to such a powerful song from the ’90s that rode on the waves of grunge and indie rock? What could a band do to make the sophomore effort worth everyone’s time? Such a monumental task was running through the band’s mind and the history of studio tension and angst nearly caused a break up.
What happened though is that they grew into their own, carefully crafting out an album worthy of their own praise, disregarding what the critics thought (#4 in the U.K. charts). This was an evolution, as tracks began to break away and tear apart from the inside out. Considered one of the best guitar albums ever made, The Bends is a wealth of treasure worth the time and effort to learn, know, and become a part of. There are moments of future endeavors sprinkled throughout; showcasing what we all know was to come with their next album and each subsequent follow-up, but this one was the turning point for many.
First lead off single “High and Dry” was a genuine pop song, neatly arranged to the band’s displeasure as something a bit artificial. Despite being a great song, they haven’t played it in nearly a decade. This sort of benign attitude would accompany the band to the present day, thus showcasing their attention to detail that is unforgiving and confrontational in regards to what people thought was normal music. The Bends was Radiohead’s last straightforward rock effort. Most of the songs are somber, mellow and slightly depressing, hidden amongst nice jangly guitars and acoustic flourishes.
Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, the two-man superhero guitar team, are readily accomplished here as they produced very nice, interesting hooks and graceful melodies. The strums aren’t so much as heavy as they are concocted with precision and grace. This album was lumped in with the Britpop movement of time, but no one really did guitar work as well. Unfortunately the duo almost abandoned this style of playing as well. Future releases never sounded this open and free. And as for bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, the rhythm section has always been another highlight for the band. Greenwood’s bass has always kept a nice, audible groove and Selway’s drumming is never handled with more than it should be.
“Planet Telex” is a great opening number, giving off a sort of atmospheric outer space feel while Yorke gets more cryptic than ever. The change from personal, to social and global worry, showed a difference in maturity and a more immediate response. Yorke also changed up his vocal style, approaching the album with a more angst-laden falsetto, (popularizing it…) and making each song stand out on its own. Other numbers like “(Nice Dream)” and “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” give an intimate nature, like a man alone in his room recording something for himself.
It’s a nice departure from what Pablo Honey had, and when carefully listened to, one can see how later songs like “Exit Music (For a Film),” “How to Disappear Completely” and “Nude” came about for them. There is also a noodly jam during the chorus to “Bullet Proof,” later on to be tried again in the song “Nude.” A nice little bit to seek out for those purists. And in regards to purists, the various B-sides to this album are worth seeking out as well. “Talk Show Host,” “Indian Rubber,” “The Trickster” and “Permanent Daylight” are among some great songs that shouldn’t be forgotten, but were wisely left off the initial album for good reason. Twelve tracks were enough to get their point across.
The last three numbers are the rear end of the ship; a nice close to an emotional, thoughtful, moment-in-time snapshot. “Black Star” is about a failed relationship: “I get home from work and you’re still standing in your dressing gown / well what am I to do? / I know all the things around your head / and what they do to you / What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?” “Sulk” is an overwrought, depressing song which the title best describes what it means… sulking. “You bite through the big wall / the big wall bites back / You just sit there and sulk / Sit there and bawl.” No wonder Yorke was labeled the next “rock ‘n’ roll martyr” at the time.
And lastly is closing song “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” Beginning with desperate, eerie guitars, reminiscent of some sort of classical arrangement, the song builds up and up as each band member adds to the structure. Yorke’s vocals begin to soar as the drums kick the tempo and the guitars strum more quickly. The rhythmic nature of the song is always haunting, lacking in any sort of present being. More and more gradually, the song reaches for a sort of last breath to hold onto, making the listener contemplate what’s going to happen at the end. When all is said and done though, fading out is the right word here as the track reaches to its climax and quietly dispels its tight grasp.
Radiohead, critic darlings and cult favorites. The gap between what is modern and what is art has always been in their shadow. People often don’t know what to expect from the band these days. What stands as Radiohead’s accomplishment though, is that they still remain mainstream and inspirational, no matter what anyone says, but also stay rooted in their craft. If it isn’t for their works, then maybe it’s for their honest direction to do what they want and to create what they want. Always looking forward, but not so much in past, Radiohead are modern expressionists, minimalists and entrepreneurs of their own music world. The Bends really was the beginning of the end, but also the re-birth of something new.
We used to listen to music in an entirely different way. There was once a time when music was organized into 45- to 75-minute chunks– often a few standout tracks padded with a lot of mediocre filler, but occasionally designed so that the parts built up a larger structure. Used to be, people would sit down and listen to that lengthy piece of music from front to back in one sitting, resisting the urge to jump to their favorite parts or skip over the instrumental interlude that served as grout between two fuller compositions. These antiques were called CDs. Here’s a story about the last of its kind.
When Kid A came out in October 2000, it sounded like the future. Unless you were a Napster whiz-kid, the record was one of the last to arrive unspoiled and complete, a physical object, the disquieting Stanley Donwood art reinforcing its dark mystery. It’s arguably two-and-a-half minutes into “How to Disappear Completely”– more than a third of the way through the album– until anything sounds like a “Radiohead Song,” even with how far the elastic of that term was stretched on OK Computer. And while Radiohead were far from the first to glitch-up their vocals with a computer or drown their compositions in ambient washes, it was still a thrilling experimental gamble for a band that could’ve profitably re-made “Karma Police” 100 times over with minimal reputational damage.
But simply flirting with new technology wasn’t enough; even in 2000, the idea of a band “going electronic” was a laughable marketing gimmick from an era that spawned the term “electronica.” But the samples, loops, and beats of Kid A were more than just the patronizing dalliance of a bored band, they were tools used to service the album’s even deeper exploration of OK Computer’s thesis on identity loss in computerized society. It was, unashamedly, a complete album, one where everything from production to arrangements to lyrics to album art were carefully crafted towards a unified purpose.
It’s also a contoured album without clear highlights, best experienced in one sitting rather than cherrypicking the best parts. (It’s telling that the band famously quarreled over the sequencing of tracks.) The biggest stylistic coup was the corruption of Thom Yorke’s vocals– arguably the band’s most singular feature up to that point– and the detuned-radio effects of the album’s opening couplet: “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Kid A” threw listeners expecting that signature “Fake Plastic Trees” falsetto immediately into the deep end. On “The National Anthem”, Yorke is shouted down by horn section mayhem, and when he finally gets in an unfiltered word in on “How to Disappear Completely”, it’s the album’s most haunted (and revealing) line: “That there, that’s not me.”
There’s no storyline to pick out from Yorke’s lyrics, but a unified thread moves through the album nonetheless: Basically, Kid A is scary as hell. It might be the paranoid, nearly subliminal, unbroken undercurrent of haunted drone, courtesy of a Rhodes or a tape loop or Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes-Martenot, a instrument for nightmares if there ever was one. Or it might be Yorke’s terrifying one-line, Chicken Soup for the Agoraphobic Soul mantras that alternate between honeyed violence (“cut the kids in half”) and clichés and hum-drum observations twisted into panic attacks (“where’d you park the car?”).
(A brief intermission to talk about the bonus tracks included with this reissue. Capitol’s in a tough spot with finding Kid A outtakes, because they already released such a thing– it’s called Amnesiac…*rimshot*. So instead the bonus-disc padding is all live tracks, culled from British and French radio or TV shows. In keeping with the album’s isolation fixation, the empty studio of the four-track BBC session is the most fitting environment for the band’s performance, the vocal manipulations of “Everything in Its Right Place” ricocheting off egg-crate walls. Contrast that with the clap-along crowd on an “Idioteque” from France, which neuters the song’s sinister undercurrent and turns it into an inappropriate party jam.)
Every great album needs a great resolution, and Kid A has two: the angelic choir and harps of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” which serve as a much-needed (if fragile and a bit suspicious) uplift needed after such unrelenting bleakness, and a brief ambient coda that justifies the hidden-track gimmick. The silence that surrounds that final flash of hazy analog hiss is almost as rich, conferring a eerie feeling of weightlessness upon anyone who’s completed the journey with a proper headphones listen.
But that’s where the twist ending comes in. Kid A turned out not be the music of the future, but a relic of the past, more in line with dinosaurs like Dark Side of the Moon or Loveless as try-out-your-new-speakers, listen-with-the-lights-off suites. By the time Amnesiac officially arrived, it had been served up piecemeal on the internet, handicapping the final product from reproducing its predecessor’s cohesive structure. From then on, albums have persisted, sure, but they’re increasingly marginalized or stripped for parts– release Kid A today, and many might choose to save or stream “Idioteque” and Recycle-Bin the rest, missing the contextual build and release that makes the album’s demented-disco centerpiece all the more effective.
That’s not a qualitative judgment: The way things are now isn’t better or worse, just different. Technology, of course, is a selection pressure, digital music eroding the arbitrary 45ish-minute barrier that once was dictated by vinyl’s finite diameter. But while a single song will often do, there’s a talent to building and a pleasure in experiencing a dozen songs weaved together into a 40 minutes that’s richer than each individual track, a 12-course meal for special occasions between microwave snacks.
Like calligraphy, it’s a fading art, as even Radiohead themselves seem to be disinterested in the format, perpetually threatening to dribble tracks out in ones or fours when the spirit takes them. In the end, one of the many ghosts that haunt the corridors of Kid A is The Album itself, it’s death throes an unsettling funeral for a format that, like so much else, was out of time.
Like many music lovers of a certain age, I have a lot of warm memories tied up with release days. I miss the simple ritual of making time to buy a record. I also miss listening to something special for the first time and imagining, against reason, the rest of the world holed up in their respective bedrooms, having the same experience.
Before last Wednesday, I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling. I also can’t remember the last time I woke up voluntarily at 6 a.m. either, but like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, there I was, sat at my computer, headphones on, groggy, but awake, and hitting play.
Such a return to communal exchange isn’t something you’d expect to be orchestrated by a band who’s wrung beauty from alienation for more than a decade. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that Radiohead revel, above all else, in playing against type. It’s written in their discography; excluding the conjoined twins that were Kid A and Amnesiac, each of their albums constitutes a heroic effort to debunk those that came before it. Although 2003’s Hail to the Thief was overlong and scattershot, it was important insofar as it represented the full band’s full-circle digestion and synthesis of the sounds and methods they first toyed with on OK Computer. So, after a decade of progression, where do we go from here?
If the 2006 live renditions of their new material were anything to go by, not much further. With few exceptions, the roughly 15 songs introduced during last year’s tour gave the impression that after five searching records, Radiohead had grown tired of trying to outrun themselves. Taken as a whole, the guitar-centric compositions offered a portrait of a band who, whether subconsciously or not, looked conciliatory for the first time in its career. Although a wonderful surprise, their early October album announcement only lent further credence to the theory. Where they’d previously had the confidence to precede albums like OK Computer and Kid A with marketing fanfare worthy of a classic-in-making, this sneak attack felt like a canny strategy to prepare fans for an inevitable downshift.
The brilliant In Rainbows represents no such thing. Nonetheless, it’s a very different kind of Radiohead record. Liberated from their self-imposed pressure to innovate, they sound– for the first time in ages– user-friendly; the glacial distance that characterized their previous records melted away by dollops of reverb, strings, and melody. From the inclusion and faithful rendering of longtime fan favorite “Nude” to the classic pop string accents on “Faust Arp” to the uncharacteristically relaxed “House of Cards”, Radiohead’s sudden willingness to embrace their capacity for uncomplicated beauty might be In Rainbows’ most distinguishing quality, and one of the primary reasons it’s an improvement on Hail to the Thief.
Now that singer Thom Yorke has kickstarted a solo career– providing a separate venue for the solo electronic material he used to shoehorn onto Radiohead albums– Radiohead also sound like a full band again. Opener “15 Step”‘s mulched-up drum intro represents the album’s only dip into Kid A-style electronics; from the moment Jonny Greenwood’s zestful guitar line takes over about 40 seconds in, In Rainbows becomes resolutely a five-man show. (For all of Yorke’s lonely experimental pieces, it’s easy to forget how remarkably the band play off each other; the rhythm section of Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are especially incredible, supplying between them for a goldmine of one-off fills, accents, and runs over the course of the record.)
A cut-up in the spirit of “Airbag”– albeit with a jazzier, more fluid guitar line– “15 Step” gives way to “Bodysnatchers”, which, like much of In Rainbows, eschews verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of a gradual build. Structured around a sludgy riff, it skronks along noisily until about the two-minute mark, when the band veers left with a sudden acoustic interlude. By now, Radiohead are experts at tearing into the fabric of their own songs for added effect, and In Rainbows is awash in those moments.
The band’s big-hearted resurrection of “Nude” follows. The subject of fervent speculation for more than a decade, its keening melodies and immutable prettiness had left it languishing behind Kid A’s front door. Despite seeming ambivalent about the song even after resurrecting it for last year’s tour, this album version finds Yorke wrenching as much sweetness out of it as he possibly can, in turn giving us our first indication that he’s in generous spirits. Another fan favorite, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” brandishes new drums behind its drain-circling arpeggios, but sounds every bit as massive in crescendoing as its live renditions suggested it might. “All I Need”, meanwhile, concludes the album’s first side by dressing up what begins as a skeletal rhythm section in cavernous swaths of glockenspiel, synths, pianos, and white noise.
With its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and syrupy strings, “Faust Arp” begs comparisons to some of the Beatles’ sweetest two-minute interludes, while the stunning “Reckoner” takes care of any lingering doubt about Radiohead’s softer frame of mind: Once a violent rocker worthy of its title, this version finds Yorke’s slinky, elongated falsetto backed by frosty, clanging percussion and a meandering guitar line, onto which the band pile a chorus of backing harmonies, pianos, and– again– swooping strings. It may not be the most immediate track on the album, but over the course of several listens, it reveals itself to be among the most woozily beautiful things the band has ever recorded.
With its lethargic, chipped-at guitar chords, “House of Cards” is a slow, R.E.M.-shaped ballad pulled under by waves of reverbed feedback. While it’s arguably the one weak link in the album’s chain, it provides a perfect lead-in to the spry guitar workout of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. Like “Bodysnatchers” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” before it, “Jigsaw” begins briskly and builds into a breakneck conclusion, this time with Yorke upshifting from low to high register to supply a breathless closing rant.
Finally, the closer. Another fan favorite, Yorke’s solo versions of “Videotape” suggested another “Pyramid Song” in the making. Given the spirit of In Rainbows, you’d be forgiven for assuming its studio counterpart might comprise some sort of epic finale, but to the disappointment of fans, it wasn’t to be. Instead, we get a circling piano coda and a bassline that seems to promise a climax that never comes. “This is one for the good days/ And I have it all here on red, blue, green,” Yorke sings. It’s an affecting sentiment that conjures up images of the lead singer, now a father of two, home filming his kids. A rickety drum beat and shuddering percussions work against the melody, trying clumsily to throw it off, but Yorke sings against it: “You are my center when I spin away/ Out of control on videotape.”
As the real life drums give way to a barely distinguishable electronic counterpart, Yorke trails off, his piano gently uncoils, and the song ends with a whimper. The whole thing is an extended metaphor, of course, and, this being Radiohead, it’s heavy-handed in its way, but it’s also a fitting close to such a human album. In the end, that which we feared came true: In Rainbows represents the sound of Radiohead coming back to earth. Luckily, as it turns out, that’s nothing to be afraid of at all.
When I head out to purchase Hail to the Thief during my designated lunch break today– an allowance Thom Yorke would surely turn into a fatalistic, Orwellian meditation on routine and alienation– I’ll mingle with teenagers and CEOs frantic to walk out with their own copy. Because today, Radiohead are U2, Pink Floyd, and Queen– and they could have been bigger than The Beatles if the success of “Creep” hadn’t agitated an Oxford-bred guilt complex. As Yorke put it in Meeting People Is Easy: “English people aren’t impressed. There’s this automatic assumption that any degree of success means that you’ve cheated. Or you’re full of shit.”
That’s a cross Thom no longer has to bear, since whatever shit he was full of was beaten out of him– in his hometown, no less– one night in 2000. Like Johnny, the more thoroughly bloodied protagonist from Mike Leigh’s Naked, the assault lent Thom an appreciation of reality’s ominous urgency, quite possibly for the first time. Protected from street-level human misery– first by privilege, then by wit, later by celebrity– Yorke labored for years under the misguided belief that the world is tangible, that it can be changed, that any dignified person would be miserable to live here.
A mild pummelling at the hands of embittered local punters refocused this unparalleled modern songwriter on more immediate and emotionally resonant issues, stuffing him back in boots he was most certainly growing too big for.
Which is not to advocate violence, or suggest that any end could justify its employ, but there are tertiary benefits when an artist’s perspective is forcibly altered. Listen to Kid A, the most remarkably finessed redesign of an established band’s sound since U2 recorded Achtung Baby: A reaction to overexposure, the undermining effects of commodification, and the alienation of celebrity, the record hasn’t aged a day, though Amnesiac– a less inspired collection of underdeveloped tunes from the same sessions– has somewhat dulled its glimmer.
The two albums were written and recorded before Thom was attacked, before he became a father, before the world became a lot smaller, when nothing really mattered. Hail to the Thief is almost four years removed from the reality he last wrote about, and for its suspicious title and Yorke’s recent political exploits, it’s thankfully less concerned about third world debt and globalist conspiracy theories than I’d expected. Still, the record is not without its simplistic admonitions.
Hail to the Thief doesn’t dig up Britpop skeletons from The Bends, and it’s not OK Computer II, as Yorke christened it in the press. Rather, it’s a holding pattern; Yorke has confessed as much, and his excusatory remarks only underscore his chief failing: He believes radical change is the best option in all cases, and only feels pride in doing something “new” (quotes here, since Eno had ample reason to bristle at Kid A). Yorke can’t see that Hail to the Thief is nothing to apologize for, that Radiohead are a band, and that, after a fashion, bands are defined by their music. Much as U2’s Zooropa still sounded like U2, anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead.
The triumphant “2 + 2 = 5” could only work as the set’s opener: It’s an encompassing declaration of intent, defining the exploratory boundaries of Hail to the Thief as well as the professedly temporary return to “rocking out,” something Ed O’Brien’s been wanting to do ever since Kid A was born.
As a preface to headier analysis later in the record, Thom deals with his recent political distractions, pointing out the medieval ignorance of inaction in the face of overwhelming odds: “Are you such a dreamer/ To put the world to rights?/ I’ll stay home forever/ Where two and two always makes up five.” It’s a bit grandiose, but he rightly concedes the possible arrogance of his bravado during the tune’s neurotically charged finale, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in/ When it’s not/ Maybe not.”
Not as topical– perhaps even reassuringly vague– “Sit Down. Stand Up.” returns us to those old fears of impotence in the face of global forces at work, but as a new father, Thom has every right to revisit one of the great societal laments in rock history, OK Computer. Juxtaposing a dread spawned by media oversaturation with hands-over-ears denial of the rain falling outside, the track is devastating in its defeated isolation, the thoughts of a medicated droogie drooling in his cell on a Sunday afternoon, bubbling under the skin.
Though it’s compositionally identical to “2 + 2 = 5”, the darker subject matter and more sinister execution– in the form of far-off piano melodies, icy xylophone hits and throttling vocal doubling– reveal a demonic twin caught sideways in a cracked mirror.
Leading with such an excellent couplet, it’s something of a disappointment to find that those reactionary barbs about stagnation Yorke is trying to defuse are critically valid, if irrelevant to fans. “Sail to the Moon” has the serenity to survive its lamentably tired title and refrain, but for its beauty, it’s both lyrically and melodically reconstituted from better ballads past, like “Pyramid Song”, “How to Disappear Completely”, and “The Tourist”.
For fans, it’s another wondrous lullaby from Radiohead; for critics, it’s not only nothing new, it’s topically ridiculous, as Thom cautions his newborn son: “Maybe you’ll be president/ But know right from wrong/ Or in the flood/ You’ll build an Ark/ And sail us to the moon.” It’s an apocalyptic vision with all the emotional impact of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.
“Backdrifts” is the first beacon signaling that Radiohead haven’t lost touch with the experimental nature of Kid A and Amnesiac. This carefully attended piece– a boxed-in, minimal collection of sine waves, gurgling vocal delay and distorted drum machine loops– is easily overlooked on first listen; in a moment of levity, the band cuts loose with reverse-echoed piano and guitar swipes done up as scratching vinyl. “Go to Sleep”, a tightened retread of Amnesiac’s Smiths tribute “Knives Out”, drapes Morricone reverb and Perkins twang over hugely panned acoustic guitars. The tune carries through a surprisingly traditional half-time Britpop chorus as Yorke rambles through placeholder lyrics, alternating tossed-off lines like, “We don’t want the loonies taking over,” with the constant response, “Over my dead body.”
This worrisome middling leads into “Where I End and You Begin”, which is the only real low point on the album, as aside from Yorke’s vocals, it’s simply a U2 song. Shuffling snare rolls usher along an admittedly succulent liquid bassline, but these are only drawn out from their terrestrial locus by a hard-panned pair of keyboard tracks, which, for their simplicity, rescue an otherwise unsalvageable track. The finale is more intriguing, with its raspy whispers and excellent melodic interplay, but for the most part, this is chaos stacked high to mask creative nudity underneath.
“We Suck Young Blood” returns to the piano mode the band has explored increasingly since Kid A, a sort of drunken New Orleans death dirge that embodies its vampiric title, creeping along at a measured, sickly pace punctuated only by languid, distanced handclaps. The approach pays off hugely, as Yorke’s gorgeous, metallic whinny embraces the stumbling progression with harmony after harmony, and moments of depressed, gentle wistfulness.
Along with “Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming” exposes the band’s potential future. Simple, looping glitches and obstinate digital blurts dash all expectations, remaining resolutely compact, borrowing huge synthetic reverb plates such that Yorke can sing over his own voice. It’s arguably academic in its basic composition– a theoretical dare– but “The Gloaming” is one of few risks on this relatively sociable record, a wink to the more studious members of their audience.
Which is where the advance single “There There” picks up, embodying the unification of Radiohead’s recently mixed aims. Jonny wants to play with analog synths, Ed and Colin want to bash guitars, Thom wants to change music forever, and they finally meet up in this terrifically strange, yet structurally straightforward anthem. “There There” builds on more universal lyrics, soaring harmonies and a thundering crescendo the band wisely trimmed from its concert length (it originally began after Yorke’s midpoint scream). Yorke said he wept uncontrollably when he heard the first mix of it, and the unmastered MP3s of Hail to the Thief which leaked in March support his professed reaction: Unlike the rest of the album, “There There” is essentially unchanged.
Possibly even more inspiring (and enduring) are “Myxomatosis” and “A Wolf at the Door”, two of the last tracks on the album. The former is a buzzing prog redux of OK Computer’s “Airbag” that shows how the simplicity Radiohead strive for can work wonders with tempo; drums fall all over the track until Thom winds up a layered, head-spinning (intoxicated?) verse that spills the rhythm onto the floor. It’s a dizzying stereo-panned stomp, and one of Hail to the Thief’s finest moments.
As usual, Radiohead save a masterstroke for the closing slot: “A Wolf at the Door” continues in the peculiarly Slavic jazz-blues mode first explored in Amnesiac’s Russo-Bayou parlor waltz “Life in a Glasshouse”. But “A Wolf at the Door” is more thorough, refined and consequently potent– almost slick– in comparison with its drunken, ephemeral predecessor. It’s here, at the end of things, that Yorke most openly deals with the impact of his physical assault three years ago and his still-maddening fears of role-playing traps in society and relationships (nicely summarized in a quick nod to Bryan Forbes’ terrifying The Stepford Wives). Evil is out there– he’s suffered its wrath– and like a terrified Chechnyan matriarch, he relies on tangible protection from the fuckers and future come to ransom his child.
For its moments of gravity and excellence, Hail to the Thief is an arrow, pointing toward the clearly darker, more frenetic territory the band have up to now only poked at curiously. Experimentation fueled the creativity that gave us Kid A and Amnesiac, but that’s old hat to Radiohead, who are trying– and largely succeeding– in their efforts to shape pop music into as boundless and possible a medium as it should be. Without succumbing to dilettantism, they continue to absorb and refract simpler posits from the underground, ideas that are usually satisfied to wallow in their mere novelty.
The syncretic mania of Radiohead continues unabated, and though Hail to the Thief will likely fade into their catalog as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, most of us will long cherish the view from this bridge.
One day, my friend Michael and I were playing Rock Band, and he decided he wanted to play Creep. I asked him if I should listen to Radiohead, as I was slowly expanding my music taste. He said that I definitely should, that Radiohead was probably the best band out there right now. My interest was piqued, so I did some research on the band (which consisted of me reading their Wikipedia page and the Wiki page for some of their albums), I decided to purchase OK Computer, since it was acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of the 90s. My expectations were quite high.
I was not disappointed at all. In fact, I was a bit surprised that I liked the album as much as I did. Every single musical change, every vocal, every odd-end instrument that’s thrown into the music, worked for me. Out of all the music I’ve listened to, nothing has connected with me more, has made more sense to me than this album. This album is the definition of musical perfection; listening to it is bliss. I search for flaws, only to find more nuances in the music that make me appreciate and love it even more. Since listening to this album, I have purchased every single Radiohead album, and only been disappointed once (care to guess?). They have morphed into my favorite band. My music taste has rapidly expanded into something that I can truly be proud of. I can definitively say that music is one of the three most important things in my life (girls and soccer are the other two). All thanks to this album.
1. Airbag- This song gets the album started off with a bang. The opening guitar riff is incredibly powerful, even if it isn’t the catchiest, with bass dropping in out of the song seemingly randomly. Colin said that he had recorded some of the bass parts and had planned to do the rest of it to complete the bass part for the song, but never got around to it. It actually works quite well, keeping the listener on his/her toes and adding an intricate layer to the music. The lyrics revolve around getting out of a car crash safely. Thom Yorke has said that he is terrified of the dangers of getting in a car and is shocked that more people don’t feel the same way. You know a song is good when its two influences are a magazine article and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 4.5/5
2. Paranoid Android- I cannot put into words how much I love this song. “Airbag” segues perfectly into this song (the transition is actually is one of the best moments on the album). The song is a reference to Marvin the Android from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The four sections of the song fit together seamlessly, going from a drum loop-based opening into a jam-out section which features a nasty guitar solo. One of the darker sections of the song follows, and then we get to jam out some more before what is my favorite Radiohead song of all time ends. 5/5
3. Subterranean Homesick Alien- One of the weaker tracks on the album. That being said, it’s still a very good track. It’s a necessary track, as this helps along the flow of the album while being a very good song in its own right. The guitar section is very beautiful and continues the lyrical theme of fear, this time with aliens. Thom sings, “Take me on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it,” over keyboards and laid back drumming. 4/5
4. Exit Music (For a Film)- One of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching tracks ever recorded. Simple chords on a guitar, Thom’s voice, and a masterfully added Gothic choir are all that is needed to drive the majority of the song along. The lyrics are a summary of the story of Romeo and Juliet, with lines like, “Pack and get dressed, before your father hears us, before all hell breaks loose,” clearly being about the play. One of the best nuances of the album comes in the buildup to the crashing in of the instruments. If you listen carefully, you can hear Selway tapping ever so softly on his hi-hat before his inventive fill comes in to start the song’s take-off. Something the casual listener would never catch, but it’s these details which makes this album a classic. 5/5
5. Let Down- A beautifully composed track. While none of the instruments stand out, together they work brilliantly. Jonny plays his guitar in a different time signature than the rest of the instruments, which is quite brilliant. The outro heightens the song, with a wonderful synth line taking us into the next song. 4.5/5
6. Karma Police- The most accessibly song on the album, Karma Police is built around a seemingly simple yet truly incredible piano part and standard rock beat from Selway, one of the few on the album. This features one of my favorite lines on the album, which would be, “Karma police, arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill.” The lyrics were inspired by an inside joke within the band; whenever someone would do something bad, the others would joke that the “karma police” would come and get him. The song is structured oddly, as it doesn’t seem to have a true chorus. 5/5
7. Fitter Happier- The feedback at the end of Karma Police leads right into this track. Thom describes the lyrics as list of slogans from the 90s, and considers it to be, “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written.” Even though there isn’t that much to the song, it holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first truly odd song that ever struck my fancy. 4/5
8. Electioneering- The intro is perfect after the atmospheric “Fitter Happier”. It sounds like the start of a race, with a horse scraping its hoof on the ground. Then, one of Greenwood’s best riffs comes in, and the song takes off and doesn’t slow down for it’s entire duration. A welcome change of pace. 4.5/5
9. Climbing Up the Walls- It also sets up this track perfectly. Simply put, this is one of the darkest, most depressing songs ever written, containing the ability to make you feel truly awful. This is the first indicator of Thom singing with effects, which would be revisited often on future albums. The guitar part almost doesn’t fit in, as it seems a bit more uplifting than everything else. Selway’s tom-tom beat is absolutely perfect for this track, which also has some ambient noises and Jonny Greenwood’s first strings composition to add to the mood. The lyrics greatly enhance the mood. 5/5
10. No Surprises- Once again, a perfect transition. Described by one critic as, “a Sunday wake-up song”, it is very relaxing. The bass in the intro is faint, but is very well-written to not take away the spotlight from the melodic guitar, but to add something for those listening carefully. The lyrics are juxtaposed to the music, as they are arguably more depressing than the lyrics in the previous track, with lines like, “I’ll take a quite life, a handshake of carbon monoxide, and no alarms and no surprises”. The goal for this song was to replicate the atmosphere of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,”, which the band successfully does, and in the process, creates a brilliant track. 5/5
11. Lucky- This is the song that started it all. The band wrote this for the Help! EP in 1995 and were incredibly happy with it. They decided that they would pursue this new style of writing, and out came this album. The song builds up, but not in a typical way, into the chorus, where everything crashes in. It took a long time for this song to grow on me, which is odd, considering it’s one of the more immediate tracks on the album. The lyrics deal with a man surviving an airplane crash and feeling like a superhero. Considering their positivity, the lyrics are an anomaly. The quality of the song is not. 5/5
12. The Tourist- This song is very unique in the context of the album. A Jonny Greenwood composition, the song is very spaced out and mellow, unlike the rest of the album, which is very dense. Selway lazily keeps time on his kit along with some very atmospheric guitar parts. The lyrics match the mood of the song, with Thom singing, “Hey man, slow down, slow down,”. My friend Michael vehemently believes that this song should switch places with No Surprises. I always vehemently disagree, mainly because the ending to this song (a single note on the triangle) is so perfect, is such a brilliant way to end the album, that there is no possible way that this shouldn’t be the closing track. Oddly enough, out of all of Radiohead’s albums (excluding Pablo Honey), this is my least favorite album closer, yet this is still easily my favorite album by Radiohead. Oh well. It works much better at the end of the album than it does as a song on its own, but still a wonderful track. 4/5
The album has an overall theme of social disconnection and depression, which is perfectly reflected by the music. This album serves as a bit of a bridge between Radiohead’s earlier and later work. While it definitely shows some signs of the experimental path the band would take with “Kid A”, it also still has some of the conventional rock track from “The Bends”. The mix between the two styles is one of the reasons that this album is their best effort ever, and one of the greatest albums of all time.