It’s usually safe as milk to assume that bands who make splashy entrances — as England’s Radiohead did, with a gimmicky self-deprecating US debut (“Creep”) that slyly “fuck”ed its way up the charts — have no place to go but down. That makes the enormous creative growth between Pablo Honey and The Bends all the more admirable. And that was just the beginning for a group that has become a global superpower, a successor of sorts to a band that first set out to emulate.
The Oxford quintet has one bad habit (trying to sound like a young English U2) and several good ideas on Pablo Honey, although “Creep” is not chief among them. The single’s comforting admission of worthlessness (“I wish I was special, so fucking special, but I’m a creep”) predates Beck’s “Loser” by a year, but Thom Yorke’s vocals are too self-consciously drab to be convincing. Jonny Greenwood’s choking guitar explosions are far more corrosive, but they’re not what the song is about. The fervent, nearly spiritual view of alienated ambition stated in the rousing and catchy “Anyone Can Play Guitar” cuts much closer to the bone and seems truer to the band’s actual desires: “Destiny protect me from the world…I wanna be Jim Morrison.” In a similar musical vein, “Ripcord” uses a twin-guitar roar and Yorke’s impassioned singing (sometimes layered into Byrdsy harmonies) to good effect, lashing out at the quiet melodic lines with aggressive, edgy noise assaults. While other tracks exploit that dynamic tension (“Blow Out” detonates the first half’s jazzy daintiness with Greenwood’s howling wind tunnel noise demonstration and Phil Selway’s Keith Moon drum bursts), a few remove the electro-shock therapy completely. The acoustic “Thinking About You” is a fine, sensitive love song that suggests a solemn intelligence beneath the media-conscious bluster.
The five noncommittal new tracks on My Iron Lung deconstruct the first album’s ingredients, leaving a simpler, less evidently contrived and casually produced sound. That’s progress of a sort, though only “The Trickster” and “Permanent Daylight” have the compositional clarity to take advantage. The Beatlesy title track is an intriguing digression, but the lyrics (“This is our new song/Just like the last one/A total waste of time”) only reinforce the structural resemblance to Radiohead’s previous bout of ego failure.
“Am I really sinking this low?…I wish it was the ’60s / I wish I could be happy / I wish I wish I wish that something would happen,” sings Yorke in the disconsolate title track of The Bends. He then proceeds to savagely yawn and moan his way through such vague miseries for the entirety of this provocative testament to faded glamour and crepuscular youth. Produced, as was the EP, with a minimum of fuss by John Leckie, The Bends constantly undersells itself, which makes Yorke’s expressions of acceptable angst all the more dismally seductive. Everything here is fake or broken; Yorke is cynical, vulnerable and exhausted. His response to pain is chemical anesthesia; he dreams of being “Bullet Proof” and chooses unconsciousness over confrontation. (Reprised in this context, “My Iron Lung” makes perfect sense: “We’re too young to fall asleep / Too cynical to speak / We’re losing it can’t you tell?”) Meanwhile, guitarists Greenwood and Ed O’Brien tickle and rattle with a staggering array of clever instrumental approaches, building a complex web of energy and anger, frustration and hopelessness — all in the guise of accessible pop songs. Now that’s special.
After the transitional sophomore album, OK Computer is a dense, multifaceted record that attests to a considerable evolution. It stands not only as a landmark for the band but as a landmark in British rock of the ’90s. It’s ironic that an alternative rock group whose existence is part of punk’s legacy should, for its best work to date, revive a genre that was anathema to punk: OK Computer is the Britpop generation’s most accomplished prog rock album. It’s cerebral; it has a unifying concept; some tracks eschew straightforward rock song structures in favor of greater complexity; contemporary classical music serves as an occasional reference point; many of the arrangements have a symphonic flavor; and prog’s paradigmatic Mellotron features on several tracks. That’s not to say OK Computer sounds like something by Rick Wakeman or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Yorke’s lyrics revisit standard rock leitmotifs — alienation, angst and frustration — and the often grand musical setting converts these essentially banal concerns into high drama (rather like Pink Floyd did with Roger Waters’ lyrics on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here). However, the songs aren’t “about” melancholy and disaffection in a direct, narrative sense, and the lyrics aren’t maudlin tales of woe; they’re fragmented collages of imagery and elliptical phrases. It’s not even necessary to understand them on a linguistic level, as the sheer sound of Yorke’s voice evokes the emotions at stake, as do the multidimensional, dynamic arrangements. Jonny Greenwood is a key figure in this realm; he has reinvented his guitar sound, giving it all manner of new identities and nuances. The distinctive opening section of the first track, “Airbag,” sets the album’s tone. Greenwood avoids rock riffing, choosing instead to make his guitar sound like a cello (to the accompaniment of the real thing) in a way that recalls Robert Fripp’s intro to King Crimson’s “Red.” Greenwood also takes charge of the string arrangements, avoiding the clichés that usually spring from rock’s unimaginative incorporation of classical orchestration. He deploys it in an understated yet memorable fashion: for instance, the closing section of the harrowing “Climbing up the Walls,” which involves 16 out-of-synch violins. In a broader sense, there is an orchestrated flavor to much of OK Computer; the tracks contain different movements and an interplay of components. Originally composed for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet, “Exit Music (For a Film)” is a slow-motion mini-symphony that moves from a simple acoustic intro and swells to an epic climax with a Mellotron choir and earth-moving bass. (The band allowed this track to be used in the British sitcom Father Ted as the music that renders a Catholic priest suicidal. Who said Radiohead lacks a sense of humor?) Above all, OK Computer shows how far beyond the simple pop formula of “Creep” Radiohead are willing to go. On the minimalist “Fitter Happier,” a Professor Hawkings-style computer voice delivers lifestyle prescriptions; “Paranoid Android” is a schizophrenic six-and-a-half-minute epic with shifting time signatures and moods. There’s also more familiar song-based fare that’s just as compelling — most notably the piano-based sing-along anthem of cosmic revenge, “Karma Police.” Of course, other contemporary bands have recorded provocative and intelligent music using rock as a point of departure and pushing its boundaries, but OK Computer stands as one of the finest results.
Following the enormous success of OK Computer, the hype and expectation surrounding the band’s next project ran high, particularly as rumors of a conflictive recording process trickled out, and Kid A was one of 2000’s most eagerly anticipated records. Not only is it difficult to discern that several of the tracks on this album are by the same band that made the pop-friendly Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s sound underwent another significant transformation from OK Computer. While that album was alt-rock played with a neo-prog sensibility, Kid A ventures into post-rock. Initially, Radiohead wasn’t just a guitar band, it was a three-guitar band; that instrument is used sparingly on Kid A, second to an increased emphasis on keyboards and synths. More crucially, though, the band’s sound shows the influence of recent trends in electronic music. Yorke has made no secret of his growing ambivalence towards rock and his desire to privilege rhythm over melody, and Kid A finds the band working more with the technologies of electronica and experimenting with computer-based composition and editing. It might seem strange that it took them so long to arrive at this juncture; Kid A‘s electronic inclinations may signal a new direction for Radiohead, but in the greater scheme of things the album is by no means innovative or groundbreaking. Rock acts have been appropriating elements of dance music and its tools since the late ’80s. However, Radiohead doesn’t appear to have approached this recording as a rock band seeking simply to blend rock and dance music, slapping together a facile hybrid of riffs and beats. On the album’s most intriguing tracks, the members occasionally step away from their traditionally assigned roles and instruments to rebuild Radiohead from the ground up, reinventing their sound with new materials and a different creative process. That’s not to say that Radiohead abandons the typical tools of rock — they’re certainly present here but they don’t necessarily perform their familiar functions in the construction of conventional song-based rock music. While tracks like “Paranoid Android” moved beyond standard structure, Kid A‘s most engaging, electronically oriented material dispenses with songs altogether in favor of open-ended, non-linear arrangements. With skittering beats, atmospheric synth coloring and shards of melody (largely from Yorke’s inscrutable and often processed vocals), the title track and “Idioteque” owe much to artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Other tracks forego beats entirely. On “Everything in Its Right Place,” swaths of synth, woozy Fender Rhodes piano melody and Yorke’s sliced-up, layered vocals circle each other hypnotically. “Treefingers” is an ambient interlude that takes Radiohead far from its guitar-band origins; ironically, the source instrument on this track is actually a guitar, subjected to extensive studio manipulation.
In addition to embracing electronic experimentation and its tools, Kid A also sees Radiohead paying increasing attention to an older musical form that’s long been appropriated by artists keen to liberate themselves from the conventions of rock: jazz. Squalling Mingus-inspired horns shoot through “The National Anthem,” which builds on a foundation of heavy bass and propulsive drumming worthy of Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. Another noteworthy component here is Jonny Greenwood’s sci-fi sounding Ondes Martenot (a vintage keyboard-cum-theremin favored by avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, among others, but known to most from the original Star Trek theme music). Although Radiohead explores new avenues on Kid A, a couple of tracks do reveal continuity from OK Computer. Unambiguous, crunchy guitars re-emerge on “Optimistic,” the album’s most immediately accessible, even radio-friendly number. That said, it would be erroneous to claim that Kid A is a difficult or inaccessible album; it’s an album that simply requires close, attentive listening.
The release of Amnesiac came a mere eight months after Kid A. That these albums have much in common is to be expected, since the songs were recorded during the same sessions. (Some of the tension that arose during the making of Kid A stemmed from differences of opinion over which tracks should appear on that record.) While that might imply that Amnesiac is an album of odds and sods, it definitely doesn’t sound that way. Prior to its release, some of Radiohead implied that it would mark a return to a Bends-like sound but, apart from a couple of guitar-centered songs, the album is for the most part as obtuse as Kid A. Recent experimental electronica remains a key influence; several tracks feature fractured, music-box melodies, syncopated beats and dark synths. After his Kid A immersion in newer technology, Yorke seems to have retreated even further into the machines. His voice has always been an important instrument — that’s accentuated here as the lines between body and machine blur more than ever. The combination of his nearly affectless delivery and its treatment with an autotuner gives “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” an almost robotic feel; his claims to being “a reasonable man” throughout the track assert the presence, at some level, of the human and the emotions in an increasingly computerized environment. On the abrasive, claustrophobic “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” however, his heavily manipulated voice makes it sound as if he’s undergone a complete cybernetic transformation and become part of the mechanism. “Like Spinning Plates,” one of the album’s more oblique numbers, similarly hints at the eclipse of human agency; Yorke’s numb, distorted vocals run backwards and forwards (as do several other sonic elements) on this warped and muffled track that suggests a hybrid of Neu!’s “Cassetto” and something from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Digital trickery aside, the band resorts to completely lo-fi techniques on the anti-Blair anthem “You and Whose Army?” The nostalgic sepia-toned ’40s sound was achieved by recording through an egg box. More obviously retro is the drowsy closer, “Life in a Glasshouse”; featuring 79-year-old British trad jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, this slo-mo New Orleans-flavored number eventually builds to a conclusion that’s wearily uplifting. A similar air, albeit disillusioned and alienated, permeates the album’s finest track, “Pyramid Song,” an unsettling ballad with dissonant, swelling strings, mournful piano and an unusual, restless time signature. Lyrically, like the bulk of Yorke’s writing, it’s as impenetrable as it is affecting. Although the lyrics are disjointed and obscure, there’s a marked political dimension to them — most notably the eerie, string-washed “Dollars & Cents” — that resonates with his public statements against globalization: “We are the dollars and cents / And the pounds and pence / And the mark and the yen, and yeah / We’re gonna crack your little souls.” Elsewhere, the more direct “Knives Out” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Bends, but it’s this album’s least interesting track. Not that it’s weak, it just sounds like a throwback amid the more forward-looking numbers. For the most part, Amnesiac again shows how a band can remain vital even as it is thoroughly part of the mainstream. Still, it would have made more sense to have released this material with Kid A as a double-CD set.
Radiohead’s third album in just over a year was a selection of live numbers drawn primarily from Kid A and Amnesiac. The most worthwhile tracks on I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings are those that undergo reworkings or transformations in performance, especially “Like Spinning Plates.” However, these numbers and one previously unreleased track, the acoustic ballad “True Love Waits,” aren’t enough to make this a particularly attractive release. With only eight tracks totaling little more than 40 minutes, I Might Be Wrong isn’t really worth the price of a regular CD.
“OK Computer II” was how Thom Yorke described Hail to the Thief prior to its release. Fans and critics who weren’t entirely convinced by the last two albums doubtless took this as a signal that the band would be strapping on guitars and saving rock ‘n’ roll (again). Yorke’s comments also inevitably raised expectations that Hail to the Thief would be as epochal as OK Computer; the experimental excursions on Kid A and Amnesiac were a bold departure and each album contained several memorable tracks, but those records ultimately didn’t justify all the “only band that matters” rhetoric that OK Computer spawned. Taken in the context of Radiohead’s history, however, Hail to the Thief is a disappointment. Radiohead here re-embraces rock (rather heavy-handedly for such a cryptic band — the album begins with the sound of a guitar being plugged in) and pays renewed attention to songs, but there’s scant evidence of any really fresh ideas. Much of this record fits tidily between OK Computer and Kid A; while it straddles rock and electronica, it isn’t convincing as either. More straightforward rock numbers like “Where I End and You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In)” feel tired and perfunctory; “Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over)” and the glitchy “The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold)” gesture back to some of the adventurous moments from Kid A and Amnesiac but, given their relative isolation on this album, come across as dabbling. Lyrically, though, there seems to be a renewed sense of immediacy and urgency, which isn’t surprising given Yorke’s well-documented socio-economic and political concerns and considering the backdrop to the recording of the album: the illegitimate power of the Bush administration, the aftermath of 9-11, the increased mobilization against globalization, the invasion of Afghanistan and the build-up to the occupation of Iraq. All of this impacts Yorke’s songwriting more acutely than before. The angry, intense “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm),” with its none-too-subtle Orwellian reference, reproaches those whose lack of concern and vigilance have allowed the world’s pitiful state: “There is no way out / You can scream and you can shout / It is too late now / Because! / You have not been / Payin’ attention.”
Alongside the vintage Radiohead guitar sound and the presence of verses and choruses, Yorke’s sound is one of the most immediately striking aspects of Hail to the Thief. In sharp contrast to the previous albums, he forgoes the layers of treatment and manipulation and allows his voice to emerge cleanly and clearly. At the same time, his lyrics appear to touch on more personal concerns, with several songs alluding to children and his own newly born son. Of course, Yorke has always mixed the personal and the political, usually with inscrutable results, and here the experience of fatherhood seems to have deepened his concerns about the bigger picture. Indeed, the outlook becomes bleaker than ever when he personalizes things. Juxtaposing apocalyptic images of “bunkers” and “babies’ eyes” and a pledge that “I won’t let this happen to my children,” the haunting, piano-based hymn “I Will (No Man’s Land)” underscores just how remarkable Yorke’s voice is as an instrument (with the aid of overdubbed harmonies). On the “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style spiel of “A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll)” he sings about an unnamed, threatening presence that “Calls me on the phone / Tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up / Steal all my children.” There are no solutions, only a desire for escape and a wistful optimism: on the sweeping “Sail to the Moon (Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky),” Yorke — presumably addressing his son Noah — sings, “You’ll build an ark / And sail us to the moon.” As befitting an album concerned with children, there’s even a song with a title that alludes to rabbits, albeit sick ones; on “Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner)” — the record’s only truly convincing rock song — Yorke sounds as if he’s helpless in the maws of disease as the track drives implacably forward on a massive fuzz-bass foundation that evokes Kid A‘s “The National Anthem.” Hail to the Thief would have been an accomplishment for any other band — but Radiohead, unfortunately, doesn’t have the luxury of just being any other band; inevitably, OK Computer has become an albatross around the group’s neck, the critical benchmark for all their subsequent work. Judged in those terms, Hail to the Thief doesn’t measure up.
The subject of more discussion for its means of distribution than its content, In Rainbows was initially self-released by the band as an Internet-only download for which consumers were allowed to name and pay their own price. The least confrontational album of the band’s career jettisons most of the experimentalism of Kid A and Amnesiac as well as the political themes of Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows carries Radiohead to a more intimate land. “All I Need” is a powerful minimalist ballad, while “Nude” contrasts Yorke’s sweet falsetto with a shocking allegation: “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.” Elsewhere, the band rocks out with abandon (“Bodysnatchers”) and creates elegant, dreamy pop (“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”), all the while maintaining a measure of quiet grandeur. In Rainbows is a richly textured and resonant record. In a career marked by dramatic reinvention, Radiohead’s latest phase — growing old gracefully — is going quite well. The 2007 self-titled release is a limited edition seven-disc box containing the band’s first six studio albums as well as its live release.
The instrumental Bodysong is Jonny Greenwood’s first project away from Radiohead. Strictly speaking, it’s not a solo record but a documentary film score commissioned by director Simon Pummell. Drawing on a century of footage, Pummell’s film traces the human experience from conception to death; in the absence of dialogue, Greenwood’s music serves a narrative function, resonating with the visual imagery and embodying the range of moods suggested by it. This virtually guitar-less record is a fuller realization of the experimental potential of Radiohead’s last three records and emphasizes Greenwood’s prominent role in shaping some of the band’s more challenging work. Juxtaposing different generations of musical technology (from violin and cello to Ondes Martenot to laptop), Greenwood crafts an eclectic series of soundscapes that blend elements of contemporary classical music, minimalism, jazz and electronica. With its slow, doomy piano chords and spectral strings, “Moon Trills” bears a passing resemblance to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” while the skronking horns and busy drumming on the frenzied “Splitter” make “The National Anthem” sound like a tame trad-jazz stomp by comparison. “Convergence,” in which disparate forms of percussion and divergent rhythms hypnotically interweave and eventually coalesce, is more minimal but no less energetic. Greenwood’s marriage of electronic and acoustic elements is especially compelling on tracks like “Trench,” with its scrambled beats and sawing strings. Although this album certainly vouches for Greenwood’s range and ingenuity as a composer, it doesn’t completely hold together as an autonomous release and really needs to be experienced in the context of the imagery that inspired it and that it’s intended to accompany.