Radiohead & The New Digital Era
Fans of dour-faced popsters Radiohead have been reading in magazine interviews for years how Thom Yorke is bored of the album format, due to its creatively constrictive nature, or his well-documented distaste for lengthy promotional tours. He has spoken in vague terms about doing something different in future, being generally no more specific than that. Fresh from reinventing the music business with the tip-jar online release of most recent album In Rainbows and the ensuing critical success, the currently unsigned band have begun to make good on those earlier threats with a couple of one-song, non-physical releases.
I’ve often thought that 2003’s Hail To The Thief would have worked better as a few EP’s than an album - it’s quite jumbled in tone, and as such gets freuently overlooked despite the quality of the songs. It’s also a clear bridging point between the focused ethereal vibe of In Rainbows, and the early 2000’s drunken jamboree of sound on Kid A. I saw Radiohead play live shortly prior to the release of both these albums, and the difference was pronounced - Yorke was largely sullen and stationary for Kid A, only getting excited for Idioteque. By contrast, the songs from Hail To The Thief seemed designed to enable the band to flex their muscles onstage - the fuzz bass of Myxomatosis and tribal drumming of There There were quite exhilarating, and Yorke was suitably energetic throughout. On record, this translated as a band in the midst of trying to sift through the otherworldly carnival of sounds and they had amassed over the years and incorporate them into the notion of playing together as a band, rather than creating sonic moodscapes on their laptops, or in the case of Ed O’Brien, probably staring longingly at his guitar and making lots of tea. Their longest album at fourteen tracks, it was recorded over a fortnight at a rate of a song a day, which perhaps robs it of much of the replay value that distinguished the laboriously constructed Kid A / Amnesiac. It is the sound of a band in a state of necessary transition, a process which led to In Rainbows, more or less generally acknowledged as an instant classic of sorts. Yorke claimed the album was “their Revolver”, which appropriately makes its predecessor “their Rubber Soul”.
It seems strange to switch to single song releases at this point, as one thing that has begun to elude the band is a memorable single in the vein of Paranoid Android or Just. None of the post Kid A-sides besides Pyramid Song have really been strong statements, and all are noticeably weaker when divorced from their context. A few strong contenders on Hail To The Thief were overlooked for ‘safer’ choices, and even their b-sides seemed noticeably weaker. I remember thinking somewhere between the underwhelming releases of Go To Sleep and Bodysnatchers that singles were no longer really of any use to Radiohead.
It is possible that this new direction is a reflection of the changes in the way people listen to music these days - the amount of songs many people carry around in their pockets would fill two bungalows if it were on vinyl, and the ability to cherry pick your favourites has never been easier. It’s certainly less taxing to make an i-tunes playlist and burn it to cd than to spend two hours on a compilation tape, but it’s also less romantic and reduces our relationship with music to a more ephemeral and transitory level, which I think has done just as much damage to the music industry as illegal downloading. Radiohead are able to combat this malaise with albums which beg to be listened to properly on headphones with the lights off, which is why I feel they’re ill-suited to this approach.
And yet, here we are. These Are My Twisted Words was released officially on the bands Dead Air Space blog though the intended surprise was slightly bungled by an early leak of the mp3. It’s a quite boring guitar jam with vague doom and gloom lyrics, and that’s about it. Obviously, it’s not completely worthless - it seems to flow smoothly and stutter about at the same time, in a disconcertingly lovely way which will be very familiar to anyone who has heard any of the bands albums in the last decade. The guitar lines are spooky downward spirals and there are pleasing sonic changes at the important parts which will be also be very familiar to etc but it’s still too long and the intro is shit. A complacent choice to introduce a new era in the release of your music, which severely dilutes the impact of the event.
The other song, Harry Patch (In Memory Of) was written as a tribute to the last veteran of the First World War. It appeared for download costing £1 (donated to the Royal British Legion) after being premiered on Radio 4’s Today programme, which is perhaps why it didn’t create quite the same stir as Twisted Words’ more revolutionary release-model despite happening a week earlier. It is far, far better than Twisted Words. Quite gorgeous, in fact. Reminiscent of their earlier swing-band funeral dirge Life In A Glasshouse, it pairs Yorke’s plaintive vocal with a more traditional accompaniment than we’re used to hearing - in this case an orchestral string arrangement. It’s a trick worth pulling twice, and showcases guitarist Jonny Greenwoods growth as a composer/arranger. Here the sound is similar to his marvellous score for There Will Be Blood, only with less dischordant malice and more regal, poignant majesty. Lyrically, it abandons the familiar miserabilist non-sequiteurs of their recent oeuvre for some poetic first person observations of life in the trenches, a noticeable and welcome change of pace. The words are in part derived from quotes from Harry Patch, and it all builds towards some very moving moments. Remarkably, it was released just eleven days after the titular soldier died, giving it a flavour of Hail To The Thief’s immediacy, whilst sounding as mature and accomplished as the best songs on In Rainbows.
Despite the gulf in quality between the two songs, I’ve not really felt the urge to listen to either very much beyond the day they were released. I think that despite Thom Yorkes apparent frustrations with the format, I too strongly identify Radiohead with full albums. It’s their own bloody fault, too - choosing not to release any singles off Kid A, even turning their b-sides into miniature albums, which inevitably improved them. The feeling of listening to a kind of musical suite (whilst absorbing the complex accompanying artwork) is such an important facet of Radiohead’s albums that they tend to obliterate my desire to listen to any other music for up to a year after their release. Few bands are good enough to wield that kind of power, and while it’s enjoyably diverting to be brought in to the creative process, to check in and see how things are going on a song by song basis every few months, I’ll be bitterly disappointed if they don’t go back to doing fucking albums simply because both of these songs sound lost and ineffectual on their own. While a sing-a-long chorus would probably weaken the sombre mood of Harry Patch, the songs really need to stick in the mind more than they currently do.
This fruitful but unsatisfying era of Radiohead fandom looks set to continue with two new Thom Yorke single releases - a double a-side 12 inch FeelingPulledApartByHorses/TheHollowEarth (I’m not sure if the lack of spaces is part of the title, or just to do with the weird style Thom Yorke writes in) will be made released and simultaneously made available as a free download from September 21st. Another song All For The Best forms half of a split single from the compilation Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs Of Mark Mulcahy, which also features The National, Dinosaur Jr and Michael Stipe. All of these releases can be kept track of at the official Radiohead online shop at http://www.waste.uk.com/.