It is a very known fact that I am a big Radiohead appreciator. After all, I didn’t force my band to learn how to play over 100 Radiohead songs by heart just for the money (though, to be frank, the money was pretty good.) I’ve been a fan since 1997, from the very first time I saw the Paranoid Android video, which blew my mind and open the door to an amazing world of songwriting and musical adventurism.
But yeah, when Kid A was released I thought it was boring – at first. I was younger then, basically still a teenager, and perhaps I had more patience and tolerance than I do today. After listening to the album five times, I realized: it wasn’t boring, I just didn’t get it at first; this was so different from what they’ve done before, I almost missed out on it. But the songs were good, and the explorative soundscapes were intriguing.
The thing I’ve always loved about Radiohead was that, much like the Beatles, in spite of having a very distinctive signature sound and style, every song was different. Every song had its “thing”, be it the concept of the lyrics, the song structure, the arrangement and even the sound of the snare drum. Even on Pablo Honey and The Bends, Radiohead’s more straight-forward guitar-based rock albums, every song popped in a different way. Say what you will about Creep and Pop is Dead – those songs are one of a kind.
A Slow Fall Still Breaks Your Back
This quality started to die out around Hail to the Thief, though. Make no mistake, I love that album, but things were starting to sound a bit too similar there. I’ve noted in the past that HTTT was an accumulation of Radiohead’s entire body of work till that point, a brief reminder that said ‘this is everything we know how to do’, from intense prog-rock-esque time signatures through jazz to electronica and rap (okay, that one was new). It was brilliant but it was the end of an era, and it set the bar quite high for their next thing.
With The King of Limbs, and its predecessor In Rainbows, it seems that Radiohead are more concerned with innovating in the field of marketing than in the field music. Even though I don’t actually expect Radiohead to “innovate” – I just want them to write good songs. I hate it when artists are “required” to innovate, as if we’re scientists; in the 21st Century, all a band can really do is mix new elements with its signature style and hope for the best. Nothing is new, but everything is new at the same time. If a metal band suddenly starts playing polka – that’s new; and when a British rock band started playing jazz and live electronica – that was also new.
Well, it’s not new anymore. At this point, the most innovative thing Radiohead can do is to release a angsty-guitar-driven album à la The Bends. Many Radiohead fans would be delighted I’m sure, and I won’t lie, so would I.
Loops Loops Loops to Infinity and Beyond
I’ve never been a great fan of electronic music, but when Radiohead did it, I liked it. I’ve never been a particularly great fan of jazz and classical music either, but when Radiohead did it, it just felt right. But it felt right because it was the means to an end, and because the songs, in their core, were good.
There was one song in HTTT that I particularly didn’t like, and that song was The Gloaming. It sounded like a pale imitation of Idioteque, only with an inferior sound, a monotonic melody and none of the excitement. In fact, this was the first Radiohead album in which I’d frequently just skip over a song (and no, I didn’t skip over Fitter Happier, in case you’re wondering).
So imagine my dismay when I realized that the new Radiohead album pretty much sounds like The Gloaming Times 8. Although the sound is a million times better than in The Gloaming - the vocals are crisp and full, the drums are condensed and precise and the general mix is superb - the songs are persistently based on never-changing loops.
Now that’s okay for a B-side or for Thom Yorke’s solo work, but for an actual album, it feels kinda redundant. There is almost no “traditional” playing on the album, only layers upon layers of samples and noises, and that would have been fine if it weren’t for the complete lack of memorable melodies or crescendos.
The Radiohead I knew and loved was a band that would rip out your heart and hand it out to you, with Johnny Greenwood’s crooked guitar playing, Ed O’Brien’s background noise specialty and the unpredictable rhythm section of Philip Selway and Colin Greenwood (sometime he’d play a note-per-bar, and sometimes he’d embark on a crazy nearly incomprehensible fast-paced bass-line that would almost resemble a solo).
But even in songs that included nothing but a piano or an acoustic guitar and Thom Yorke’s haunting voice, you’d still get the excitement and the dynamics that make their music so emotionally enhancing.
The King of Limbs has none of that. Despites the pile-up of layers and the inventive use of effects and sound manipulations, the songs never elevate very far from the point in which they begin. The drum loops are too repetitive, and the melodies are quite monotonic, and don’t deliver the intensity of the lyrics (which are actually quite good).
The loops as loops are pretty cool. They’re fun to listen to if you’re at a party or as a soundtrack for a car-racing computer game. But I’d come to expect more from my favorite band.
Codex and Give Up the Ghost stand out as a non-drum-loop based songs, but that is a diversion – they are loop-based, only the loop is created using a piano and a guitar playing the same chords over and over and over for nearly five minutes.
Sure, one could say that this is the exact same concept they had in Kid A, where most of the songs were based on one chord or no chords at all. But in Kid A they had dynamics, they had enchanting melodies and they had extraordinary arrangements that lifted the song.
No, I’m afraid most of the songs on this album take after the weaker tracks on In Rainbow, like House of Cards, All I Need, Videotape and 4 Minute Warning, where practically nothing happens for a very long time.
Today’s Kids and Their Not-Particularly-Loud Music! Why, in MY Day…
One claim that can be made is that Radiohead have matured and evolved beyond the need for “childish” excitement; that their new sterile sound is preferable to the overcrowded and noisy arrangements of past albums. I like to think that I am a musically open and adventurous listener, but perhaps I’m more conservative and nostalgic than I’d like to think. Maybe Radiohead are much tuned in to what this generation likes, and I’m the one who is behind on the times. Perhaps much like most of their veteran fans, I don’t really want my heroes to change all that much, and I secretly wish that they’d make the same music they made when they were in their 20s, in a twisted attempt to gain eternal youth and immortality.
But after listening to The King of Limbs over a dozen times, my conclusion is clear: much like with In Rainbows, Radiohead are just not as exciting as they used to be. Perhaps this is what growing older and becoming an adult is all about – you no longer get super-excited about things and everything seems dimmer and less meaningful.