Radiohead were an important band for me, and I don't think in the same way as they're an important band for most fans. I think that most would say things about the band being able to put a sound to what they were feeling, or something along those lines. And, sure: while I was never particularly wracked with angst, I was around sixteen years of age when I first encountered their music in 1998, and so they came at a time when my emotions were becoming more complex, when I was starting to understand myself better. It would be impossible to deny that the band had an effect on how I saw myself and the world. But to me they also represent the point where I came out of my shell, musically, and ended many many years of feeling very alienated by modern music.
For about a decade (between 1998 and 2008) I followed the band very closely, and then after that I just gradually stopped. By that point I had lots of other musical interests, and I found myself wanting to listen to the albums less. My rather indifferent reaction to 2011's The King of Limbs seemed to confirm to me that I just wasn't that interested anymore. And so there was a stretch of years where I barely listened to Radiohead at all, except by accident.
But it's hard to just discard music that has been part of your life for so many years. Lately I've made a decision to start collecting albums, and that has forced me to look at all the music I've ever loved and figure out where I stand with it. So I've been listening to every Radiohead album again, with fresh ears, revisiting it with far less bias than I would have been capable of when I was a dedicated fan.
What I discovered is that actually, I'm still a fan, but some of these albums sound quite different after that long break.
I suppose I should be grateful for this album, given that it was the single, Creep that kept them going long enough to produce the far superior follow up. Or, "We are grateful for our iron lung," as Thom Yorke would later put it in song.
I have to admit, while it was always my least favourite album of theirs, this has actually worsened with time. Tiptoeing around Creep for a moment, there's Stop Whispering, so bland that it's hard to believe that it was worth dedicating five and a half minutes to on an album of mainly 3-4 minute songs. There's Thinking About You, an acoustic piece which is like Bob Dylan but without the poetry or having anything to say. Very little hints that the band might be doing more interesting things in the future, aside from the closer, Blow Out, with its more creative melody and pleasingly noisy outro.
Then there's Creep, of course. Loved by many, and a perfectly passable song to be sure, to me it always just sounded like a slightly limp showtune. Inoffensive, but remarkably... uh, unremarkable. Which is probably a good enough assessment of the album as a whole.
When I first heard this album I was already rather familiar with OK Computer, and it was immediately apparent to me that this was less of an achievement, but as I listen to it now the gap feels even wider.
While The Bends is still full of incredibly good songs, I found my mind wandering in the second half. This was particularly noticeable during the three song run of Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was, Black Star and Sulk. The first I just don't find very interesting, the second was never a favourite, and Sulk came as quite a surprise. I always had a soft spot for this song, which is usually not considered one of their best, but on this fresh listen it left me quite cold and struggling to recall what I saw in it.
But it's hard to argue with the rest of the album. It's undoubtedly the start of Radiohead as an Interesting Band™, even if it's hard to listen to High and Dry without thinking of the dozens of imitators that followed, and even if some of the heavier moments now feel strange to go back to now that the band works with a much broader palette.
There's still room for Just, Street Spirit (Fade Out), Fake Plastic Trees and Planet Telex on any list of the finest songs the band has recorded, which is quite something, considering what was to come.
Ahh, my first Radiohead album. Years ago, someone asked me how I could enjoy such miserable music. Firstly, I think that Radiohead's status as a miserable band is very overstated. They make little musical jokes frequently, they use obviously tongue-in-cheek lyrical phrases rather regularly too. It's not all as po-faced as it might first appear, and there are quite a few hopeful songs mixed in too. But it's certainly true that they're not the most cheerful band, and all I could say to that person at the time is that great music never brings me down.
On that point, I have never once listened to OK Computer without feeling uplifted by the end.
Sometime in the 2000s it became rather unfashionable among Radiohead fans to praise OK Computer. While the album was itself a departure for the band, it still remained far closer to their earlier work than the surprising Kid A. Casual listeners would often talk about wanting the 'old' Radiohead back, by which they meant Bends/OK Computer era Radiohead, and I think some artificial lines were being drawn between those who wholly embraced the new sounds, and those who were 'stuck in the ways of old'.
So there was this bizarre situation of all these Radiohead fans who grew to love the band through The Bends or OK Computer but didn't like to praise them too loudly in case people thought they weren't into the new stuff. Silly, really. I think it's calmed down, since. But I think even I had somehow managed to persuade myself that OK Computer was a work from a lesser period.
Well, screw all that. Listening to this again, it's a classic - obviously so, and I feel rather embarrassed that this wasn't in my regular listening rotation for years. It's a phenomenal piece of work, every bit deserving of the attention it recieved at the time and subsequently. It sounds as good today as it did nearly two decades ago, and it feels so timeless that I find it very difficult to put precisely into words what makes it work so well.
It's a heightening and bettering of all the potential that The Bends revealed. It's the songwriting, yes. But also the sequencing, how I can't even imagine these songs in some other order, the menace that seems to hide behind even the prettier moments. As a mood piece, it has only since been topped by Kid A. And so I think it's safe to say this is one album which has definitely benefited from my Radiohead hiatus.
Kid A was the first album I loved which I actually remember getting released. In 2000, downloading music in bulk was just about becoming viable, so people were just about starting to get hints of what the album might sound like prior to release in the form of live shows that would spread around on Napster and private sites. But we didn't really know what to expect. These were some strange songs, and it was very hard to figure out how they might sound in the studio. Publicity was done via little more than a series of 'blips' - a series of videos featuring clips, only a few seconds long (at the time about the only way to keep them Internet-friendly), which hinted at something far stranger than what had come before.
As it turns out, Kid A is hardly as impenetrable as its reputation would have you believe.
I'm relieved about it, really. Of all the albums it was the one I was most nervous about revisiting. In my head, it was my favourite Radiohead album, but I wondered if it was because of all the baggage around the release, the fact that it was the first album I really anticipated. I wanted to like it so much, and when it came out it was so unexpected. Was I overcompensating by declaring it my favourite?
Nah. It's great. It's everything that I like about albums as a format. There are plenty of good songs here, but every single one feels elevated when played in sequence. I can barely even think of a song outside of the context of what comes before and after it, yet for all of that it's a very diverse album. It has weird electronic 'bleeps and bloops' as music journalists of the time liked to say. It has moody organ stuff. It has frantic jazz horns. Sweeping strings. The only time it seems to sit still is for Treefingers, and by that point I'm usually happy to take a breath.
But it's not obtuse, as some would accuse it. Half the songs even follow a pretty traditional verse-chorus template, and even the ones that don't aren't tricky to penetrate. The National Anthem may be mostly instrumental and full of free improvising horns but the bass line and drums underpinning it keeps it anchored to the ground, and I think it's no coincidence that the album's most chaotic moment is followed up by the most straightforward. Later, Morning Bell follows a strange, unsettling structure but it's not inscrutable. Like I said, the art of the album is all about each song elevating the songs around it, and I can think of few albums that do that job as well as Kid A.
Sorry, Amnesiac, but you're the straight-to-video sequel to Kid A.
I don't mean to be cruel, but that's how I felt, revisiting this album. It's not to say that it doesn't have wonderful moments. Pyramid Song is still beautiful, Life In A Glass House even better than I remember, and Like Spinning Plates one of their more successful purely electronic experiments, for my money.
But songs I used to tolerate back when I was desperate to like everything Radiohead did give me much more trouble now. Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors is four minutes of ugly percussion which I now feel free to admit I never enjoyed. Morning Bell/Amnesiac feels like a pretty but pointless retread of the Kid A song, though I do like the creepy organ counterpoint. But there's something else...
Even though this album was recorded in the same sessions as Kid A, unlike that album it features some early signs of a harsh, bleak production style that never worked for me.
It's hard to describe what I mean by this exactly, but to me I imagine it as if of the parts of the song were recorded in seperate soundproof booths, often with a very close-mic sound, and then brought together again after the fact. It was especially noticeable having heard a lot of these songs live, and then disheartening to hear the life sucked out of them on the recording.
Not many of the songs here suffer from this, but I think I Might Be Wrong and Knives Out both get this lacklustre treatment. I mention it now because it's going to come up again. But that about wraps up Amnesiac for me: sorry, it's no Kid A.
Hail to the Thief
Even though it's not a double album, Hail to the Thief feels a bit like a double album that would be better as a single album. I think even Thom Yorke saw this, a few years later digging up and posting online a shorter, rearranged (and in my opinion much superior) tracklisting.
The album is bloated, it's easy to see now. And the part that I dislike most about the bloatedness is that a lot of the songs filling it out suffer from that same 'whatever happened to the excitement of the live version?' problem that seemed to begin with Amnesiac.
It might be partially my fault from getting so used to the live versions and then listening to studio versions which are inevitably more calculated. But I don't think that's all it is. Backdrifts I had never heard live and yet somehow suffers from this problem, simultaneously having this rather (by this point) bland electronic production, and very close vocals, and actually not being a particularly brilliant song in the first place.
See? I'm so annoyed by this that I'm having trouble forming coherent sentences about it.
Elsewhere, We Suck Young Blood is gets all of the mystery driven out of it by that same dry vocal treatment, amplified by some intensely annoying backing vocals. I Will, a song which actually has an much better full-band version called the LA Version on an EP, here is stripped down and stark. Perhaps that's the point, and if so, well made, but I know which approach my ears prefer. And especially Punch Up At A Wedding, which as a song I was very excited for in the live versions, ended up anaemic, plodding along limply.
I don't want to be too down on Hail to the Thief because I think, with some of this stuff stripped out, it could really be one of Radiohead's best. I even love Sail to the Moon, which I think is much more beautiful a melody than it ever gets credit for.
By the time In Rainbows came out, I remember having come to terms with the fact I was disappointed by Hail To The Thief. And I also remember the relief I felt. "The songs sound like they've been recorded in an actual place and time. They have an atmosphere again, like Kid A and OK Computer." That's what I would tell people who were yet to hear it.
Do I still feel that way? Yes, sort of. I think my response to this one is a little more tempered now. I think I was reacting to the sheer quality of the songs, which were Radiohead's strongest collection in ages. But in retrospect, I don't love everything about how they were produced.
Nude, for example, was a highly anticipated song which had been kicking around for years - and the version here is a fine version. It has some of the same starkness of the version of I Will I criticised earlier, but here it feels appropriate. But I don't think the extremely compressed, harsh sounds of the drums on this track do it any favours, and remind me a little of some things I disliked about the previous two albums.
Then there's Videotape. I was on a high by the time I reached the end of the album. It had been a triumph. And I expected Videotape to be a sort of victory lap. In live performances it had built to a euphoric crescendo, and I was eagerly waiting for it to kick in.
It never does. Instead, it reaches a certain low-intensity, stays there, driven along by stuttering percussion, and then just dies off at the end. This approach might have been perfect, on a different album. But I feel like In Rainbows had earned its victory lap. I wanted to hear that crescendo so badly that it couldn't feel like anything other than an anticlimax.
As time has passed, it's nowhere near as disappointing as it was at the time, and I acknowledge this version of Videotape undoubtedly has its charm. But I still think of what might have been. Nevertheless, In Rainbows remains one Radiohead's finest albums, and will certainly be going back into my regular rotation.
The King of Limbs
By this point, my interest had waned somewhat, so I was rather surprised to find out that a new album was ready. Admittedly so was everyone - they announced it only a few days before release. So I had no clue what to expect.
Well, I did not get on with it at all. The first half of the album was interesting ideas that felt way overproduced. The band felt missing, it seemed like more of a Thom Yorke side project than something that Radiohead would rehearse together (although the In The Basement recordings I subsequently listened to show that actually many of these songs work exceedingly well, live).
They even managed to ruin a song I already knew again, Morning Mr. Magpie, previously a bluesy guitar number had the blues ripped out and replaced with skittish drums and muted guitar. At least when they completely changed Reckoner for In Rainbows (you can hear the link if you listen very carefully), the results were beautiful! Feral is one of Radiohead's less annoying electronic noodles, but it's still an electronic noodle, and there are other groups I now feel I can go to if I want to hear that done brilliantly.
The second half is much more successful, but so low energy that I found it hard to get excited about, despite moments of obvious beauty. More on that in a sec.
At least it was short? Growing up on The Beatles, I'm rather fond of short albums.
A few years later, and I still feel the same about this one, except somehow it's grown on me a bit. I still dislike the first half as much as ever, but the final run of four songs really is beautifully done. Sadly, I don't like to listen to half-albums. So I've done something that I don't usually do - I've changed the album.
The Other King of Limbs, as I call it, comes from the fact that I discovered Radiohead released a few other songs in the wake of the album, almost all of which I vastly prefer to the opening tracks. So I've switched three tracks out for those. I don't think I've got it perfect, yet, but I'm pleased that I've found a way to listen to the most recent work that I don't have to grimace through, and I'll be giving it some more listens for sure. The Daily Mail, one of my swap-ins, is one of the finest songs they've committed to record.
In all of this, I've learned two things:
1) I don't like all of Radiohead, and that's okay.
2) Wooow, I still really like a whole bunch of Radiohead!
It's good to have them back, and to be excited once more for where they go next.