One of the most difficult things about being a music critic is to detach "the me" from the music I am criticizing. Leaving all preconceived notions at the front door with my coat and my umbrella. Hovering above the song and looking at it from a distance, judging it in its own merit like a critical airplane flying over an aural landscape. And moreover, I sometimes wonder how can I realistically and objectively approach music by certain musicians when I am already convinced that I will love it because I have always loved what they have done. And before I even purchase (or download) the album I know that I will be impressed just as you are sure to enjoy a meal in your favorite restaurant.
Is that problematic? Does that make me any less trustworthy as a critic? In most instances, I would say that yes, perhaps it does. Perhaps you should listen to someone more skeptical and cynical. Someone who is not so easily sold.
But in the case of Radiohead, that is virtually impossible. Because they always have and always will meet our expectations. And in some cases, even surpass them.
On Thursday June 5th, 2003 Radiohead came to New York City and played the Beacon Theater, the smallest venue we're likely to see them in nowadays. That same night, the Jewish people celebrated Shavuot, the holiday that commemorated the day we received our Torah thousands upon thousands of years ago on Mt. Sinai. I personally was offered a free ticket and was tremendously conflicted about going but I turned the ticket down (I later realized that I wasn't even in town for the show). What was it about this band that made me think about–for a split second– compromising an undying tradition for what I thought to be a historic show? Why was this performance almost as inspiring as re-enacting the beginning of my religion (I realize the blasphemous nature of this statement and for that I apologize)? I have been thinking about this a great deal; why a collective of five media-shy, unapproachable Englishmen "speak" to me as powerfully as Radiohead does?
I have wrestled with the aforementioned questions, making them beg for mercy, because I want to verbalize my appreciation for Radiohead and I want others to share it with me. I finally want my friends to admit that I’m not as crazy as they thought I was and that there really is much to get inspired and excited by. I want them to trust me because I am telling them to starting listening for their own good. This is important just like vitamins.
[Deep breath] Now, how do I verbalize the passion and the fury? How do I communicate to you the thrill of being a die-hard Radiohead fan so you too will say, I want in. I’m with you, Arye.
Well, hopefully like this: (Enter presumptuous, sweeping statement here) There is no band like Radiohead existing in our time. Yes, there were bands like Pink Floyd, the Beatles, even U2 (remember when ACHTUNG BABY reinvented the radio?) but no one is testing the limits like Radiohead is within our plateau of mass culture. No band is pushing the envelope, sending a letter of mind-numbing creativity to the masses like these guys are. Their uncompromising artistry is admired by all, envied by most and disliked by few.
Two months ago, their new album, which is released officially on June 10th, was leaked on the Internet. For thousands of fervent fans this was like getting a sneak peak at your Chanukah presents. The gift is not yours yet to own but you still know what you'll be getting. And that is satisfying enough (buying the album is still necessary because Radiohead's artwork is part of the package and makes the album worth purchasing). I downloaded the album, HAIL TO THE THEIF, almost immediately and listened to it over and over again. I loved it. I absorbed. I took it in like a bottle of water after running a marathon. It was everything I wanted them to give me. Almost as if they showed up to my apartment months ago and said, Arye, what is it that you want to hear?
And over these two months, while I have been dissecting the instruments, the words, the paintings of sounds, I played Devil's Advocate to my ears accusing them of liking HTTT because simply enough, it was by Radiohead. Because I've never disliked anything this band has produced. Not their first album, PABLO HONEY, a raw, "alternative," radio-friendly and certainly inoffensive effort. Not their second timeless and first masterpiece, THE BENDS, which still gives me the chills. Nor the following record, OK COMPUTER, which is an unadulterated trip into paranoia, insecurity, self-analysis and also their second masterpiece. This album will never cease to amaze me, sort of like a loved one that you fall more in love with every time you see her/him. And then came the double punch of experimental wonderment, KID A and AMNESIAC, which angered some because it was less consistent with their previous efforts. I loved them because they felt like reading diary entries. They were personal, whispered into my ear, almost gossipy. I wanted to hear more but I also felt guilty about hearing it in the first place. These were songs that not everyone could understand but maybe it was because so many did not speak the language. Like a witch hunt of our time, Radiohead was accused of being difficult, trying to test the patience of the public and no one wanted to hear the rational explanation. They were merely saying, you all bought our last album. Well, we need to progress. And here are two that will challenge you. Are you up to it, they asked?
I enthusiastically responded, YES! YES! I am!
Well, rejoice you of the sensitive ear! HTTT is the happy compromise of handholding and the frustrating refusal to be "commercial" that you've been waiting for. It's almost as if Radiohead was accutely aware of all the fans turned off by KID A and AMNESIAC and was saying, seriously, we're sorry about all that. We needed to get it out of our system but please come back. Please play this album in your dorm rooms while sitting on your Urban Outfitters couch.
The first song "2+2=5" is an inspiring beginning. It's a four part epic masterpiece in four and a half minutes. It starts out with a wounded gentle Thom Yorke singing you into a lull of security. A minute and a half in, it stops, and things get eerie. A sunny day transformed into a dark cloudy gloom. And then two minutes and four seconds in, guitars explode like an unrelenting thunderstorm, crashing in on our feeble heads, a toxic rain that so many of us New Yorkers know too well. Following that, the rain becomes consistent and we are no longer afraid to step outside. We embrace the rain. We even open our mouths to taste the drops.
And again, that is just the first song.
As the album progresses, we hear "Sail To The Moon" which feels exactly like the titular activity. The scented-candle-like sway of the guitar and the piano bring you close to the lunar landscape. This could be what an astronaut feels like when gravity denies him a simple activity such as walking on the ground. Thom Yorke's voice is floating and you are floating along with it. It is beauty incarnate. It’s the Rose Planetarium that wants to be heard and not seen.
The most accessible songs, the ones that are like caffeine for the heart or chicken soup for the soulless, "There There" and "Where I End And You Begin,” are epitomes of imposing feelings into music. In the hey-day of pop and Matrixes (the songwriting team that brought you Avril Lavigne), it’s so spring-day-glorious to hear urgency in music, to feel what it is like to be wounded just by listening. When Yorke “sings at the conclusion of “Where I End…” “I will eat you alive…there’ll be no more lies,” you understand the pain of being lied to. You relate to his frustration with being deceived. The song helps you conjure a time when you also wanted to eat someone alive for making you feel like the object of such malicious betrayal.
“There There,” the first single off this album, interestingly enough is a massive statement by the band. “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there…” may be a response to the accusatory media that’s bestowed so much political relevance to this album (the band denies that HAIL TO THE THIEF is alluding the George Bush). Or it could be the frustration felt by a band that has been put on the highest of pedestals for creating epic, grand art and ambiguous lyrics that many misinterpret. Whatever the statement is, though, the song with its muddy-consistent rhythm sections drudges along like a dinosaur looking for dinner. It’s hungry, wanting, vicious and plodding.
Despite the rumors awhile back, HTTT is not a rocking album. It has its rocking moments but overall it’s neither bombastic nor spastic. It just maintains the self-conscious weirdness that has made Radiohead so endearing in the past. The band that is aware of its quirks and it is sort-of fine with that.
But what makes this band and album so revelatory is that every member is a genius at what he does. Guitarist Johnny Greenwood is the Jackson Pollock of the six-string, randomly throwing colorful strokes that make a beautiful finished product, a work of chaos that from a distance seems so logical. Drummer, Phil Selway is the unsung, or unheard, hero that carries the others out of the burning building. He saves lives and songs. Ed O’Brian, the other guitarist and tallest member of the band, is the balance to Johnny’s insanity. The two of them together create a penetration of the ears and mind that know no mercy or restraint. And the most enigmatic member, Colin Greenwood (Johnny’s brother) is the foundation of the haunted house that is Radiohead. Many will call Radiohead Yorke’s band but on repeated listens, that is far from the truth. While Yorke is an invaluable singer, he is only one-fifth of the pleasure.
And in truth, I could explain Radiohead’s sound and their new album for hours and hours more (that is the kind of discourse they inspire) but the only thing that would make you truly understand is by listening to the album yourself. Because it is an experience. It’s one of those, well-you-had-to-be-there’s.
Chances are you’ve already read a great deal of press on them being that they’ve graced just about every publication in recent weeks. And unlike a lot of times where magazines and papers are desperately looking for something—anything—to talk about, Radiohead deserves the insane coverage. Because they are the most exhilarating thing happening in music today. Honest. No exaggeration.
Moreover, while a “music critic” like me has heard more music than any person should be subjected to, and while I have seen so many live shows that have left me with a that-was-ok feeling, Radiohead still makes me weak at the knees. Like I was a high school girl encountering her first crush. And when that is still possible, after I’ve become so jaded and have evolved into a self-declared know-it-all, it’s a refreshing glass of naively-made curbside lemonade. It is something that will excite me, entrance me, inspire me, make me feel like the world has yet revealed so many wonders and gifts to me. Listening to them is transformative. Yes, it’s that dramatic. It’s that real and lovely.
It’s even, dare I say it, somewhat religious