Monday, 7 January 2008


I don’t quite know what to do with, or about, Radiohead right now; for me they are still too tied up with Oxford and all that my Oxford history entails, all the way from the time when they were called On A Friday, were regularly third on the indie night bill at the Jericho Tavern and hadn’t quite worked out whether they wanted to be U2 or Dinosaur Jr or Then Jerico, right up to the open-air South Park performance which Laura was too ill to attend (and therefore I didn’t go either). I would also venture that the best way to understand Radiohead’s music would be if you had been living in Oxford throughout the nineties and very early noughties; there is so much about them that is intrinsically Oxford (or Abingdon, or Cumnor Hill, or Botley) that it’s hard for me to reset my critical faculties for them; instinctively I still think of the sudden, backwards retreat of a fade to “Spinning Plates” which in that last summer felt like Oxford and Laura and life vanishing into irretrievable nothingness (the reverse of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road”), but then there were also the ignored omens of OK Computer (that is, ignored by me until it was too late) and the silvering autumn delineated by Kid A; I thought its freeform contraflows slightly timid in comparison with, say, Primal Scream’s Xtrmntr and wished that Thom Yorke had the chutzpah to come out with something as goofily absurd as “Bomb The Pentagon” (why do I get the immediate picture of Bobby Gillespie being made by his mum to stand in the corner wearing a dunce cap on 10/11? “Aw maw, gies a break”…).

Still, most of Kid A and about half of Amnesiac have endured, and Hail To The Thief is maybe this decade’s most marooned album (i.e. everyone knows it’s good and hugely underrated, but where to place it?). At this point I have to applaud Radiohead for the staunch impersonation of back to basics, honest just-like-you-and-me blokes which they have recently been purveying, both online and in print; they currently teeter on the Stunning Return To Form tightrope but that is not entirely their doing. From its downloaded status onwards, In Rainbows has been heavily sold as their Return To Rock with Clear Singing of Comprehensible Songs (as though no one with a soul would have missed “Everything In Its Right Place” or “You And Whose Army?”).

It is an alluring proposition but one inevitably doomed and masked. As Coldplay demonstrated when they stepped into the Kid A breach seven years ago, Radiohead’s floating voters of an outside/mainstream audience were perfectly content with cheerily cuddly platitudes – “I will fix you,” “Give me real, don’t give me fake” – delivered in Chris Martin’s geography teacher falsetto-as-vulnerability/compassion default setting and didn’t much care for adventures into abstract electronica with free jazz attached and words which savagely magnified the smouldering rage at the centre of “Bring down the Government” in “No Surprises.” Despite protestations that Yorke filtered all of this into his own solo record The Eraser, In Rainbows is neither a comfortable nor comforting listen, and is unlikely to return them to the crossroads of crossover; it took just 50,000 sales for the album to enter the chart at number one this week.

Much of this milieu is referred to in the album’s lyrics: “You used to be alright – what’s happened?” or “You’ve gone off the rails” could be extracted from messageboard postings by Coldplay turncoats, and the subject(s) of “A pale imitation with the edges sawn off” can I think easily be guessed. And despite the general feeling conveyed that this is a brighter and more hopeful Radiohead – the CD is not enclosed in a mock library book or street map this time, but in a workaday package more usually found in the kind of junk mail encouraging the recipient to consolidate their Christmas-inspired debts). In Rainbows nearly swallows itself up in its ideations of death, though the grisly scenario at the end of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggio” is rescued by the last minute “I hit the bottom and escape.” They wouldn’t necessarily have done that on Hail To The Thief. “Nude” is a classically structured 6/8 rock ballad which culminates with Yorke crooning “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.” “Bodysnatchers” is U2 filtered through a partially opaque prism; it “rocks” but try to touch it and you’ll be incinerated - Yorke even invokes Lydon with his hysterical screech of “I have no idea what you are talking about!”. “Reckoner” (wherein the words "in rainbows" appear) is stealthy rock whose balance is purposely offset by the too-crisp, too-close auxiliary percussion happening in the left channel and the Massive Attack strings which hover into view at song’s end. “Faust ARP” reimagines Lennon’s “Julia” as an unreachable nightmare.

And yet there remains hope, more hope than has been contained in the previous four Radiohead records; the brisk “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” takes its standard Friday night social scenario by the scruff of its neck and finds Yorke imploring both boy and girl to seize the moment and each other; his “Come and let it out” betters Oasis’ “Go Let It Out” by virtue of having a definable “it.” The closing “Videotape” revisits the farewell-for-now-dear-listener moonscape of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”; the tape may be slightly frayed (the shuddering blur obfuscating the first “Red, blue, green”) but Yorke finally turns to face his listener with infinitely more genuine guidance than a squadron of Coldplays could ever muster, despite or because of the looming presence of Mephistopheles beneath (or within him); his extremely slow delivery of the album’s payoff/raison d’etre, “No matter what happens now you shouldn’t be afraid because I know today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen” is very moving indeed and doesn’t suggest a collapse into hell.

Turning to “All I Need,” however, which is the album’s clear masterpiece, I wonder whether Radiohead don’t owe a goodly part of their regeneration to Canada; the sherbert rush of the latter stages of “Bodysnatchers” aren’t that far removed from Broken Social Scene, and I cannot imagine “All I Need” without the precedent of Arcade Fire, the Barack Obamas of 21st century rock whose subtle generosity is now seeping through all necessary musical quarters – how much more satisfying than the standard pseudo-trick of stamping one’s feet and yelling. Like Arcade Fire, “All I Need” owes a good deal to a certain perspective of Springsteen, most notably in the “Streets Of Philadelphia” drum pattern which empowers it. But OMD is markedly present, too; the dreamlike distortion of the synth bassline, and Godrich tweaks his knobs and slides with enough deviance to bring Red Mecca-era Cabaret Voltaire into the picture too. Meanwhile, Yorke croons of the missed chances, the pleading outsider, which he chooses to represent and stand for – the “animal trapped in your hot car,” the “days that you choose to ignore,” finally, and simply, “just an insect trying to get out of the night,” or not so simply if you consider the double-edged threat/embrace of “I only stick with you because there are no others.”

Behind him, the music steadily builds up its might, first allowing in huge Trevor Horn vibraharps, and finally, as the song reaches its natural outcome, Phil Selway’s drums dramatically crash into the “middle of your picture” and mighty block piano chords chime something approaching release, closely followed by synths melting into strings. “S’all wrong!” cries Yorke. “S’alright!” reassures Yorke, and the latter is how he ends it, with a glorious major sixth chord – it’s alright because you were patient and open-minded enough to continue trying to penetrate the Rochester core, so with In Rainbows, and Radiohead in general, there’s no option save for me to keep on working, to take those ripples on a hitherto blank shore and use them to create brighter rainbows.