Breaking new ground? Cynical way of leaking their album? Who cares! It’s Radiohead, and even though the bit rate is rubbish, I have no idea what the proper artwork looks like (which annoys the completist in me) and I’m still not sure whether I ought to count Nigel Godrich as a member or not… It’s Radiohead!
I’m a fan, could you guess?
I’ve reviewed OK Computer here before, and thinking about the 10 years since that album, a lot of stuff as changed. 10 years of Labour, 9/11, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, world terrorism, rising levels of obesity, and associated crap. My entire secondary school career, the first two years of university, people being born, people dying – I’m in danger of sounding like Ecclesiastes, but it’s been a decade of flux, and Radiohead didn’t escape.
Brave chaps, these five (six?) men. Embracing electronic music didn’t start with Kid A, but it reached its fruition there; Amnesiac saw more of the same – some songs that transcend their entire career (such as Like Spinning Plates), and others that pad the thing out, but complement its concept album brethren; Hail To The Thief, that sounded like Radiohead covering themselves with more of a band aethestic, than sounding like five (or six?) men with laptops in a studio, looking intellectual.
So here we are, 2007, post-Eraser, post-Blair, nearly post-Bush, and the band have toured a lot of new songs, speculation is rife, tense moments as fans listen to Nigel’s ripped up snippets, Dead Air Space lets us know its finished, and then bang! Down comes the bomb. Pay what you like for the download, £40/$80 for the box set, and then wait for the real release in first quarter 08. Sounds like a deal.
For the record, I paid £1, and the 45p bank charge. My logic was thus: if the band sold the CD for a tenner, and from what I understand, would be lucky if they got 10%, then they’re not losing out. The other 90% goes on producing artwork, manufacturing costs, managerial expenses, advertising and plush offices, so I’m still paying full price for the music.
The music, that which ought to be the main object of this review. I was confused at first, and then enlightened. This wasn’t Radiohead doing an (x) album, this was Radiohead sitting in the studio, rehearsal space or whatnot and just writing. There’s not an experiment in sight, seeing as this has all been done before, by them, in one form or another. I’m not complaining, mind you – I’d rather they consolidated, as the only place they haven’t been, that isn’t, say, country and western, or bubblegum pop, or Eastern classical music… is hip-hop. Can you imagine ousting Nigel Godrich, say, for Timbaland?
I thought they had when 15 Step came on, but after about 40 seconds, and Mr Greenwood’s guitar slithered in through the left channel, I was a happy man again. Firstly, it was an actual guitar, and it lifted the tense, glitchy, beats and voice intro that I still can’t work out is electronic or acoustic, Phil Selway being one of the most subtle and experimental men behind a kit in mainstream rock today. Bodysnatchers lives up to its slightly grimy title with a riff of such dirtiness and utter rock that, well, it sounds like 1995 again.
Sweetness is not something I associate with Radiohead, or emotional honesty (usually, it’s buried under layers of imagery and abstraction), but we have both on this album, for a change. Apparently, Thom Yorke has “no idea what I am talking about”, “you are all I need, I’m in the middle of your picture” – All I Need’s chorus is just pure, relaxed honesty. Aesthetically, this can sound like a retrospective – guitars splatter, beats blip, swing and pound, and vocals range from upfront to ethereal. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, titled after it’s lyric and song structure (oh, how self referential), stuns, with it’s quick beat, genius bass line (when will he ever run out of clever fills?) and, even though it sounds too cliched to work… they sound like they’re underwater, with his watery tone and the repeated chants of “weird fishes”.
Faust ARP kicks off with a muttered 1,2,3,4 – strings (a newish feature, here used to wonderfully stirring effect), acoustic guitars and soft vocals. At only 2 minutes, it’s more of a bridge to the second half of the album, where Reckoner’s slippery guitar, drops out halfway through into a big string climax. It’s heartrendingly beautiful, uplifting and joyous – somewhat of a harking back, in spirit, if not in sound, to the glorious heights of Airbag.
Funniest line? “The beat goes round and round and round” from Jigsaw Falling Into Place, another slow burning build and release, which even has what one might call a ‘normal’ rock arrangement… this is where I started getting into a familiar groove, thinking of Radiohead as a band again, not as a Thom Yorke laptop project with fancy ondes martenot love and knob twisting galore. The slowburn climaxes with Videotape, a piano led piece that brings me to tears, every time. The drums flow between the real and the programmed, with Yorke plainly saying that he’ll remember his kids’ home films when he’s at the “pearly gates”.
For the sake of British rock music, art-music and popular culture in general, let’s hope that that moment is a long way off. If they keep producing albums such as this, then there’s no stopping them reaching the canon – having settled into the groove, and providing a near retrospective of their 15 year recording career, is the time is right for a new period, a new start, and a new sound? Or shall we accept that hey, this is a pretty good place to breathe?
Whatever happens next, it’s going to blow your mind.
Key tracks: 15 Step//Bodysnatchers//Weird Fish/Arpeggi//House Of Cards//Videotape