Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“I’m OK, you're Computer” or “Blues for Pablo Honey”

A little while back I had a conversation with my uncle Gene, a career educator who’s one of the best-read, most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. He’d recently started reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, possibly my favorite novel of all time. He confessed that he’d given up on it about a quarter of the way in out of frustration with Faulkner’s circuitous, repetitive storytelling. I started to stand up for my man Bill, but when I thought about it a little, I decided to leave well enough alone. Truth is, Absalom, Absalom! is a laborious slog. I ultimately find it invigorating, chilling and fascinating, but I absolutely can’t fault anyone who doesn’t respond to Faulkner’s intentionally grueling style.

I bring this up because I find myself on the other side of the coin when it comes to Radiohead. Now, I’m somebody who’s pretty aware of the modern music scene, and I like to think I have pretty good taste. If I don’t get the appeal of a popular band, I usually just chalk it up to not being my speed and let it ride. But Radiohead is different. This is a group so universally beloved that I’ve always felt like there’s something wrong with me for not falling head over heels for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never disliked Radiohead. I’ve been moderately fond of them ever since my pal Nathan picked up Pablo Honey back when it first came out in ‘94. Trouble is, I’ve never gotten past moderate fondness, so I’ve long been perplexed by the endless stream of superlatives heaped on the band. Every time I hear OK Computer referred to as the default Greatest Album of the 1990s, my brain says, “But that’s a decade that produced In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Enter the 36 Chambers and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain!” And whenever someone refers to Radiohead as “our generation’s Beatles,” my thoughts turn toward the equally adventurous but more pop-friendly flows of OutKast.

I sometimes feel like this is a failing on my part – 50 million Thom Yorke fans can’t be wrong, right? I’ve been browbeaten so many times by my friends and colleagues that I feel I have a responsibility as a music fan to teach myself to adore Radiohead. I recently took my most proactive approach to date, sitting myself down with the band’s entire discography (including a couple of non-canon selections that I happen to have in my possession) and listening in earnest for whatever it is that’s been eluding me. The results have been equal parts frustrating and illuminating. Here’s my take on every album, in order of listening.

Kid A
When I’ve felt like I was on the verge of a Radiohead breakthrough in the past, it’s usually been while listening to a track from this album. I figured that made it as good a place as any to start. I wasn’t wrong – the best parts of Kid A embody the things I like most about Radiohead. Cuts like “The National Anthem” and “Optimistic” are slightly off-kilter, intensely produced tracks that aren’t afraid to rock out. Call me pedestrian, but that’s what I find enjoyable, and Radiohead is damn good at it when they put their minds to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of Kid A indulges the other side of Radiohead – the moody, broody soundscapes that flutter interminably against Thom Yorke’s mournful vocals. A lot of people have told me that these songs are the primary evidence of Radiohead’s genius. If that’s the case, genius treads a fine line between deadly dull and painfully grating.

Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP
I like this one. I like it quite a bit, actually. It’s like a compaction of the elements I most appreciate on OK Computer. The songs are well-crafted, straightforward and flow together well. I especially appreciate the instrumental “A Meeting in the Aisle,” as Thom Yorke’s vocals are a constant stumbling block for me. The guitar work and arrangement on “Polyethylene” veer fairly close to classic rock territory, which is a welcome development in my book. There’s a cool, trance-y vibe to this EP that’s not nearly as self-serious as a lot of the band’s work, and I dig that a lot.

I’ve read this one described as the band’s overlooked masterpiece. I do not find it to be that. In fact, this is probably the Radiohead album that gives me the least to grab onto. It’s not bad, by any means. The production is elegant as always, and the electronic experimentation is consistently interesting. But at the risk of sounding like a record executive in a bad movie, “Where’s the single?” It’s not the case with every band, but with Radiohead I find that having at least one semi-conventional, stand-out track to focus on really helps me wrap my head around the rest of the album. Amnesiac doesn’t have that, and is thus my least favorite of their discs.

The Bends
Why is this such a derided album amongst the Radiohead faithful? I understand that it pre-dates the sonic experimentation that would become the band’s hallmark, but I find it to be an engaging, accessible example of mid ‘90s alterna-rock. As such, it sounds a lot fresher and more innovative than most albums of that era. I know Radiohead has a certain genius for pushing the envelopes of songwriting and sonic structure, but they also have a rare gift for cranking out great rock songs. This album is full of the latter. It also features “Fake Plastic Trees,” the first of too many slow-paced, “Moanin’ Tom” tracks. I feel these songs bog down a lot of the subsequent albums, but this one is graceful and utterly lovely.

OK Computer
I’ve tried OK Computer from so many angles since 1997. It means so much to so many people who mean so much to me that I feel it’s my duty to learn to love it. After my most recent round, I can report that I’m not quite there, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been. I still patently dismiss the idea of it being the best album of the ‘90s (I wouldn’t even call it the best of ’97. That’d be Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On), but I can’t deny there are plenty of moments of greatness here. I’d even go so far as to call “Karma Police” a near perfect song, a lyrically chilling, musically enervating mission statement that deserves its iconic status.

And then there’s “Paranoid Android,” the album’s other focal point. My reaction to “Paranoid Android” kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of Radiohead: It’s peppered with bits of weird brilliance, its lyrics sparkle and it accomplishes some impressive musical feats, but it’s ultimately overwrought and overreaching. (Also, I’ve always hated the music video for some reason.) As for the rest, my reactions vary from “Hey, this is pretty damn good!” to “How long is this song again?” (The exception being “Fitter Happier,” which just plain sucks.) OK Computer still isn’t working its way into my heavy rotation anytime soon, but I’m getting less likely to skip over it when I scroll through my albums.

Alpine Valley, WI, August 2003
This is a live bootleg I burned from a friend a while back. I included it in my listening because I’ve heard a lot of great things about Radiohead’s live set. Listening to this disc, I can definitely see where they’d put on a killer show. There’s a lot of energy in these recordings, even on the slower numbers. It’s nice to hear a band with such meticulous, layered studio productions adapting so deftly to the immediacy of the live stage. It’s not an essential album by any means, but it does a nice job of humanizing an act that’s often chilly and uninviting by design. Also, I think I may prefer this rendition of “Paranoid Android” to the original.

Hail to the Thief
This one takes some knocks from the hardcore fans for being a bit more pedestrian than its predecessors, which may be what I enjoy about it. I suppose it suffers a bit from the same hooklessness as Amnesiac, though I like this one a little better. The experimentation is scaled back a bit, but it’s still nowhere near as accessible as something like The Bends. Hail to the Thief never reaches the highest heights of OK Computer or Kid A, but it also doesn’t traffic as much in the stuff that bugs me. I guess we can call it a draw.

In Rainbows
I don’t think anything is ever going to quite make me fall in love with Thom Yorke’s singing style. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about his florid moaning that really puts me off. But I recognize that’s Yorke’s singing is an essential part of the group’s sound, and In Rainbows puts it to good use. It’s a more coherent, approachable and consistent album than anything else in their recent catalog. That said, I’m looking back at the list of my 10 favorite albums of 2008 and I really can’t see anything I’d bump off in favor of In Rainbows (Yes, I know it’s technically a 2007 release. I’m going with the physical CD version, which still gives me more integrity than the Grammys). What does it say about me that I’d rather listen to the light-pop stylings of She & Him than the universally acknowledged Album of the Year? I don’t know, but “This Is Not a Test” is sure a lot more fun to sing along with than anything on In Rainbows.

Pablo Honey
Maybe it’s misplaced nostalgia, but I like revisiting the alt-rock of my 1990s heyday. As I said, Radiohead wasn’t at the top of my list back then, but they were on my radar. Revisiting Pablo Honey today, it sounds mainly like a really good ‘90s alt-rock album. There’s not much indication of where the band would be in four short years (one point where I can understand the Beatles comparison). Honestly, I like this one quite a bit. I’d even go so far as to say that this and The Bends are my most likely candidates for repeat listening. I realize that this probably makes me quite lame.


So what did I learn from a week’s worth of Radioheadation therapy? Nothing too earth-shaking, I suppose. The band occupies pretty much the same slot it did before the experiment. I still think of them as a good group with some great songs and a fair bit of stuff I just can’t connect with. I think it’s about time for me to stop paying heed to friends who tell me, “Just keep listening and I guarantee it’ll click for you eventually.”

I’ve listened. It hasn’t. And that’s okay. I’m simply not that big a fan of Radiohead, and that’s all there is to it.

I do, however, love the hell out of Jaydiohead.


  1. Great post Ira. I feel the same way about U2 or even REM. They were two bands that any 'real' music fan must appreciate. I don't particularly care for either of them...but the scenesters, music press, and shitty 'best of-top 100-most influential' shows on TV repeatedly drill it into your head that you must love these bands. (Same goes for the Clash/Beatles/Ramones)

    I think RH has fallen into the same catagory. If you are serious about music, it's a band you MUST celebrate.

    I for one love RH...Green Pyramids is one of the best pieces of art I have ever experienced...but also think, some of the praise heaped on the band is misplaced.

    It seems like RH has become a kind of musical litmus test for a lot of hipsters.

    And yes, Thom's voice can wear on you. The line between genius and self indulgence can be very thin.

  2. After giving much thought to the phrase, "our generation's Beatles," I unfortunately concluded that the general public would probably call for U2 to undeservedly stake that claim. Though I may come across some (more than welcome) opposition, I would submit a nomination that Flaming Lips be dubbed the Beatles of "our peoples" generation. There is no question that the Flaming Lips do what Radiohead does, but better. Both make a great Saturday evening in soundtrack but TFL are more pliant and artistically adventuresome.

    I applaud your efforts, Mr. Brooker. As I enjoy much of their catalogue, never would I go so far as to say that Radiohead is not worth the time, and overrrated is harsher than I would intend, but I know that the task you met must have been daunting at times and is quite the feat. Kudos to you.

    An interesting end note: I did a google search of "beatles of our generation," which led me to hit number 2: youtube's "the Jonas Brothers: The Beatles of Our Generation," which has subsequently been removed by the user.

  3. That's pretty much how I feel about Neutral Milk hotel.