Radiohead Unplugged (From the Music Industry)

Fifteen years and six studio albums into their professional career, the five members of Radiohead find themselves in an unprecedented position. Their longstanding contract with the multinational recording conglomerate EMI—under the terms of which they created, among other things, two critically lauded artifacts of late-20th-century anxiety, OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000)—has now expired, and the band has shown little interest in either continuing with its former employer or rushing into a new commercial alliance. This in itself is no great shock. I’d wager that, in the age of LimeWire, any experienced musician with functioning synapses is less than enthusiastic about having to deal with the conventional mechanics of an industry that has clearly lost its way. But most musicians haven’t sold millions of CD’s around the world, as Radiohead have, and the unsettling fact is that no previous rock band at their level has maintained its success without major-label help. If Radiohead mean to continue making music for a large audience, how will they go about it?

Two events in recent weeks suggest possible answers to this question. First came the bolt-from-the-blue announcement that Radiohead’s singer, Thom Yorke, was putting out a solo disc, The Eraser, as part of a simple one-album deal with the independent label XL Recordings, known for its left-field electronic dance releases. Mr. Yorke is undoubtedly Radiohead’s central creative force, and he’d never before expressed (at least not in public) any wish to work outside the band. Given XL’s stylistic slant, Mr. Yorke’s own musical proclivities, and reports that Radiohead were already deep into the process of making their next album, it seemed reasonable to assume that The Eraser would be little more than a minor exercise in electronica, an ambient doodle produced while killing time between band recording sessions.

It’s no such thing. If there’s anything about Mr. Yorke’s first solo album that’s not surprising, it’s the general absence of guitars and the abundance of keyboards and odd-sounding programmed beats that rattle and twitch like the audio equivalent of a facial tic. Just about everything else is unexpected.

The disc’s nine tracks are actual songs, most of them tightly structured, with immediately recognizable verses and choruses—unlike a large percentage of the last three Radiohead albums. Mr. Yorke’s plaintive, almost childlike voice is way out front in the mix, and he even deigns to enunciate, which he hasn’t done much in the last 10 years.

For one track on The Eraser—“Harrowdown Hill”—Mr. Yorke also dispenses with his customary cryptic approach to lyric writing and delivers an unambiguous protest song. Located in Oxfordshire near Mr. Yorke’s home, Harrowdown Hill is where the body of David Kelly was found in July 2003. (A biological-warfare expert at the British Ministry of Defense, Dr. Kelly had disputed his government’s claims about Iraq’s arms capabilities in an anonymous BBC interview and was quickly outed as the source of a classified-information leak, whereupon he committed suicide—or so the official report concluded.) Mr. Yorke seems to suspect foul play, as lines like “You will be dispensed with when you’ve become inconvenient” make clear. The music accompanying these words displays the energy that’s so often born of righteous anger, capped by an aggressive bass line and a creepy piano lick redolent of Hammer horror movies.

Elsewhere, the mood seems more positive, though Mr. Yorke’s past penchant for gallows humor suggests that this impression may be misleading. One standout number, “Atoms for Peace,” certainly feels hopeful, as Mr. Yorke sings “No more talk about the old days / It’s time for something great” over a soft synthesizer backdrop reminiscent of British cult favorites the Blue Nile. The octave-jumping melody is demanding, but Mr. Yorke negotiates it with enviable ease. It all adds up to his most accessible work since OK Computer.

In recent interviews, Mr. Yorke has said that he put together The Eraser in a mere three weeks, assisted only by producer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s longtime right-hand man in the recording studio. In contrast, the gestation period of every Radiohead album has been notoriously long and fraught with conflict. Up until now, it was only natural to think that Mr. Yorke, who’s as combative as he is talented, was responsible for much of the band’s internal strife. The speedy completion of The Eraser indicates that he’s not the only culprit; perhaps the group dynamic (or at least this particular group’s dynamic) breeds creativity and tension in equal measures.

THE OTHER MAJOR EVENT IN RADIOHEADLAND is the band’s ongoing tour of North America and Europe, which brought them to New York for two sold-out concerts at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on June 13 and 14. The tour’s purpose is to audience-test new material for the seventh Radiohead album, which is scheduled to appear sometime in 2007; a sure sign of how much this band is adored is that they can sell out multiple nights at theaters across the globe playing songs that nobody knows. (Not that the new songs stayed unknown for long—live video and audio bootlegs were circulating on the Web within hours of the tour’s first date in Copenhagen.)

Radiohead aren’t playing anything from The Eraser on this tour, and the new band material is largely guitar-oriented—a few songs even feature the old three-guitar lineup (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Mr. Yorke) that first set them apart from the pop pack in the early 90’s. From this, you could draw the conclusion that the rest of the band decided to let Mr. Yorke blow off some electronic steam with his solo venture so they could focus on making more conventional rock music. But to judge from what I heard at the second Garden show, that conclusion doesn’t hold water: Most of the band’s new songs could hardly be called conventional. Several, particularly the drifting mood pieces “Arpeggi” and “15 Step,” are far more abstract than any song on The Eraser.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t find an ecstatic audience. At least half of the eight new songs Radiohead played sounded like winners, establishing a satisfying melodic arc without being obvious about it. During the brash, up-tempo “Bangers ‘N’ Mash,” Mr. Yorke pounded a miniature drum kit in conjunction with the band’s regular drummer, Phil Selway; the song reached an apparent plateau early on, but when Mr. Yorke came back in at the end yelling “I’m taking you down when I go down,” it acquired a new, furious vigor. “Videotape” drew its considerable power from the rhythmic tension between Mr. Yorke’s offbeat piano and Mr. Selway’s locked-tight drumming, while “Down Is the New Up” coupled an infectiously funky groove with a chord progression (and a vocal from Mr. Yorke) that climbed enticingly into the stratosphere.

The ardor with which the Garden crowd greeted these new songs—and the speed with which they were posted to various corners of the Web—suggests that Radiohead may now have the power to do something no pop group has done before: make groundbreaking music and be wildly successful without a record company acting as middleman. And yet the appearance of The Eraser throws a pinch of uncertainty into the mix. It’s too early to say what effect, if any, Thom Yorke’s solo bow will have on Radiohead’s future, but the message it sends (as Hoagy Carmichael once put it, “I get along without you very well”) is hard to ignore.

Radiohead Unplugged (From the Music Industry)