From George Martin’s classically inspired production of the Beatles to Peter Gabriel’s early solo masterpieces, to Stereolab’s beautiful loops and blips, U.K.-based bands have often found a way to squeeze warmth and compassion from the stone-cold-especially now that the tubes are gone-machinery of the recording studio.
Certainly, the British embrace of technology has gone haywire at times. The band Yes-a quintessentially progressive outfit if ever there was one-hit the ascetic balance with Fragile , a wildly underappreciated, amazingly produced rock album, but then went on to produce horrific exercises in bombast. In a similar fashion, Pink Floyd went to absurd limits to stretch sound formations, sometimes falling into self-parody-but when everything clicked, as it did on Dark Side of the Moon , the band made masterful music that has held up to infinite listenings.
In the past six years, Oxford’s Radiohead has not only resurrected the grand tradition of English rock that began with the Beatles, it has also miraculously walked a tightrope over the canyon of grandiosity. With the release of the seminal OK Computer in 1997, and continuing through Kid A in 2000 and Amnesiac in 2001-sonic masterpieces all-Radiohead found a way to combine deeply literary (albeit highly fragmented and often inaudible) lyrics with brutally modern, sparse and often electronic soundscapes. One way or another, Thom Yorke on vocals, Colin Greenwood on bass, Jonny Greenwood on guitar and various electronics, Ed O’Brien on guitar, Phil Selway on drums and Nigel Godrich at the controls create music that-for all its cold deliberation on the technical level-is deeply emotional, earthy and reflective of a world that strives hard to deplete us of our humanity.
Listening to these Radiohead recordings is like reading Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing . One is plunged into an extremely desolate linguistic space, and yet one is heartened by the sound of the language (and, of course, the music) and the sense that it coheres into something rich and thick and-I hesitate to use the words, but must-morally complex, something reflective of the human condition.
Radiohead’s moral element seems to come from Mr. Yorke’s lyrical sense, which evokes a hipster T.S. Eliot wailing about his own paltry figure (on a stick), measuring his life with coffee spoons (and computer bytes) and trying to find faith (in a post-industrial wasteland). Propelling these narratives is a diplomatic, often highly technical music that is always responsive to Mr. Yorke’s singing. Together, like a jazz ensemble-except using both old-school rock gear and whatever technical stuff is on the edge-the band and singer find pathways through Mr. Yorke’s shaggy narratives, no matter how choppy and incoherent.
So, as one would expect, a huge critical tension has formed around the release of the new Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief . The question seems to be: Can the band extend its previous efforts? Can Radiohead continue to produce work that is more original, fresher, and just as cohesive and worthy of attention as Kid A and Amnesiac ?
To be honest, this question seems slightly unfair; rock bands-and art in general-don’t move along strict evolutionary lines, with one album leading to the next in a progressive, orderly manner. Some hipsters, consumed with ranking and tracking the original sources, might find reason to attack this new record because it seems in part to antedate Kid A . And it’s clear that, like U2 in the late 80’s, the band has milked their sound to an endgame. But in songs like “I Will” and “A Punchup at a Wedding,” with the beat clear and steady, Mr. Yorke’s voice loosens, and he seems to nudge out of the digital entrapment and engage-as best he can-the world at hand. In “A Wolf at the Door” he expresses a public/private paranoia that reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” “I keep the wolf from the door,” Mr. Yorke sings, “but he calls me up on the phone / tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up / steal all my children if I don’t pay the ransom …. ”
In Kid A and Amnesiac , Mr. Yorke’s lyrics were often unfathomable, moaned and mumbled and forced beneath the surface of the music. In Hail to the Thief , most but not all of the words can be decoded after a few listens. There are still patches where, even with headphones on and a great deal of repetition, the vocals prove impossible to understand. In a strange way, these unintelligible portions serve to heighten the power of the songs. Hearing Mr. Yorke sing in these muddled passages reminded me of how much enjoyment I got last year listening to poets in Galway read their work in Irish. The beautiful, interesting sound was all that really mattered. And perhaps at some weird artistic level, incomprehensible lyrics serve to remind us of our own inability to articulate. In any case, the technique here seems to be to make clear those phrases that are actually important to the sense of the song. For instance, in “Sit Down. Stand Up,” the phrase “Sit down. / Stand up / Walk into / The jaws of hell” was clear enough to understand, whereas the repetitive phrase that ends the piece-“the raindrops”-was made clear to me only when I read the lyrics that accompanied the beautifully designed press kit. It was a strange thing to see, for the first time, an entire CD’s worth of Mr. Yorke’s lyrics written out on the page. And I have to admit that having the printed lyrics in hand gave me a sudden, almost Talmudic ability to decode the text and to hear things clearly.
Aside from the album’s pointed title, which for me at least evoked our last Presidential election, Hail to the Thief skirts direct political rhetoric. There are political tones to some of Mr. Yorke’s lyrics, but only insofar as anything uttered these days about death or bunkers or bullets is going to find itself in the context of the post-9/11, post-Iraq fear festival. Phrases such as “Murderers you’re murderers / we are not the same as you,” from “The Gloaming,” might refer to our most recent war, or not. The song “We Suck Young Blood,” which plods along like a funeral march, could be interpreted as an indictment of the exploitation of the young by international media conglomerates.
If anything, the undercurrent of paranoia that infected the last three Radiohead recordings has dissipated slightly, and the band has turned toward something more optimistic. A vague, existential hope forms when deeply personal statements arise from an inner world, statements that struggle outward to condemn the barbaric actions of large organizations. The line between real and unreal is as fragile as ever, Mr. Yorke seems to say, but at the same time it’s a line that has been with us since the beginnings of art, when the earliest cave painters first reached up to adorn the stone walls of their caves. So the only way out of the terror of modern life is through song and abstract lyric. If that fails, then constrict the voice, drive it beneath the surface and let out a good, long wail. At the same time, Radiohead seems to be saying in “2 + 2 = 5” and “Go to Sleep,” for example, that one must find a way to release pent-up energies and to rock ‘n’ roll.
Throughout Hail to the Thief , the band swerves to avoid the posturing of grandness you find in those current bands whose work is clearly inspired by Radiohead. Just when a song starts to sound like Coldplay, it veers off, twists around acrobatically and shows a new exterior.
What I appreciate about Radiohead’s work-and it’s most evident in Hail to the Thief -is how the juxtaposition of narratives on the band’s albums somehow creates a sense of wholeness. That was the genius of the great Beatles albums, too: a sense of completeness was created out of totally odd, often disjointed abutments. Think of the song “Something” placed next to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on Abbey Road , or “Taxman” placed beside “Eleanor Rigby” on Revolver .
Hail to the Thief has that kind of completeness. Exactly what makes it work so well is partly an aesthetic mystery: the same mystery you feel listening to a Schönberg piano piece or reading Dante’s Inferno -a deep, perplexing interconnection within the work that, when sorted out and picked apart, never quite adds up to anything as beautiful and complete as the whole.