The Band: Thom Yorke (Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards)
Jonny Greenwood (Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion, Other Instruments)
Ed O'Brien (Guitar, Percussion)
Colin Greenwood (Bass Guitar)
Phil Selway (Drums, Percussion)
Released: 2003 (Parlophone)
Radiohead are a band which needs no introduction. After releasing what are commonly thought of by many as two of the best albums of the 1990s in The Bends
and OK Computer
, frontman Thom Yorke revolutionised his band's sound, releasing two albums where guitars were barely in evidence, and which owed a blatant debt to electronic music. However, although such creative about faces often fail outright, or are rejected by the band's audience, Kid A
in particular was a dramatic success, charting at #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. The follow up, Amnesiac
though, was seen by many as arguably an unnecessary album, and definitely Radiohead's weakest since the release of their debut album, Pablo Honey
. Understandably, when this album was released, with its George Bush bashing title, anticipation was typically massive, with some people hoping for a continuation of the Kid A
sound, and others yearning for the band just to take the safe option for once, and release an album like OK Computer
; one that would immediately make them, once again, one of the biggest bands on the planet.
What this album is though, is somewhat different. Taking a look at Radiohead's career, something that's summed it up has been a continual progression in their music, from conventional rock, to a combination of electronica, and highly alternative music. With this album, they didn't so much move forward, as put together influences on a lot of their previous work, into this collection of songs. If anything, it's most similar to Amnesiac
, in the feel it generates, which is one of uncertainty, and not quite being sure what the band is getting at. Although this is more instantly accessible than their two previous albums, something that's shown by the band actually promoting this properly, and printing the lyrics in the album sleeve, anyone hoping for stadium filling anthems again, would be very disappointed.
However though, this, somewhat more typically for Radiohead, isn't instantly obvious. Album opener 2+2=5, which starts with Jonny Greenwood plugging in his guitar, and Thom Yorke wryly saying "That's a nice way to start, Jonny". The song itself is easily the bands most rocking song since Electioneering
, and reminds me most of a speeded up version of Paranoid Android
, due to the surprisingly frequent changes of tempo and mood in what is only a three minute song. After this song though, we're back onto more familiar territory. Sit Down. Stand Up.
opens with electronics bubbling in the background, before keyboards back up Thom Yorke repeating phrases such as "Walk into the jaws of hell". The song then builds into a crescendo, which features Yorke frenziedly repeating "The raindrops", while Jonny Greenwood seems to let all hell break loose on one of his many instruments. Then, just when you realise you have no idea where this album's actually going, you have Sail To The Moon
, a lovely piano based ballad, dedicated to Thom Yorke's son. It seems slightly stillborn if anything, with lyrics such as "Maybe you'll be president, but know right from wrong", showing that Yorke's lost none of his lyrical bite, but he sings it in such an absent way, that it's hard for the listener to know where he's really going with this.
Confused yet? You probably should be. After all, we've had three songs, none of which really seem to go together, but yet have several things in common. Obviously there are Thom Yorke's lyrics. Although he's easy to parody as a paranoid miserable doom-mongerer, there's little disputing that he's a very fine lyricist, and, unlike many singers, who become clearer about what they're talking about with age, the lyrics on this album may be his most oblique yet. However, that also poses a few problems. Radiohead's popularity is, although still huge, on the wane, and if this trend continues, it's not so hard to see them starting to be remembered as one of those bands that were brilliant, but went on too long, making music that people just can't identify with. Something else that's a recurrent theme throughout this album, is, once again, the stunning instrumental work from Jonny Greenwood. A classically trained musician, he's mastered instruments that many people haven't even heard of, and, even on conventional instruments such as the guitar, he has a unique style, which few people even attempt to imitate.
A great example of this comes on Go To Sleep
. Although not one of the better songs on here, although, as one of the more radio friendly it was released as a single, it has a remarkable guitar outro, where, as the band carry on playing the music that's been going throughout the song, Greenwood makes noises that Ed O'Brien confesses to simply not understanding, in a reminder, that although they seem to shy away from guitars these days, when Radiohead want to, they can make guitar led songs like few other bands. Where I End And You Begin
is another moody song, with Yorke's vocals sounding like they come from a long way off, and eerily imitating the lyrics of "I am up in the clouds". The combination here of electronica and Phil Selway's metronomic drumming makes this a highlight of the album, as does the outro vocals of "I will eat you alive".
However, if the album's been good up to here, the next two songs drag the standard down hugely. We Suck Young Blood
, with the exception of a jazzy piano break in the middle, is an uninspiring dirge through Thom Yorke sounding like a self-parody. His whiny vocals of "Are you sweet? Are you fresh? Are you strung up by the wrists?" are comical, more than meaningful, and the funereal claps that serve as percussion for the song, make this the worst song on the album. The Gloaming
is also poor, sounding like a near carbon copy of Backdrifts
, only with added bass, which apparently works brilliantly live. The lyrics deal with the rise of the far right in Europe, although, again, while Yorke's lyrics and outlook are as intriguing as ever, without the music to back them up, they're basically worthless, and these two songs could easily have been left off the album.
Mercifully, There There
, more than rescues the middle of the album, in particular with the band's two guitarists beating out the hypnotic intro to the song on percussion, while Thom Yorke sing vaguely of "broken branches trip me as I speak". Another of the best songs on the album, and also the longest, the climax of the song, with the band getting louder and more sinister sounding, while Yorke sings "We are accidents waiting to happen", reportedly moved Thom Yorke to tears when he first heard it, and this, more than any other song on the album, recaptures just a hint of the band's past majesty. I Will
though, although a very good song, with Thom Yorke singing over a piano, completely undoes this effect, with its lyrics referring to one of Thom Yorke's lyrical obsessions, namely bunkers, as shown on Idioteque
, with this song ending with the haunting repetition of "little babies eyes".
A Drunken Punchup At A Wedding
is a very laid back, grooving song that owes more to soul than any other genre, with the band saying they recorded the song "letting things happen", rather than forcing ideas to flow. Again, it's something of an anomaly, even by the standards of this fragmented collection of songs, but as a song itself, it's a good listen, with the lyrics again, although directly referring to the title, being more than open to further interpretation. But again, just when you think that maybe Radiohead might stay in relaxed mode, Myxamatosis
comes along, and blasts that idea straight out of your head. Described by Thom Yorke as "the nasty one", and "being about mind control", heavily distorted bass, and Yorke's surprisingly clear vocals seem to be attacking the media as well, with references to "Time magazine", but the song's clearly another vitriolic attack on someone. As usual though, it's very debatable as to quite who is being attacked.
, although a very beautiful song, has also always struck me as a bit of a "nothing"song, and one that is eminently forgettable. With Phil Selway's clicking on the drums, and soft guitars in the background, Thom Yorke's voice is free to wander over his lyrics, with a mournfully wistful style, particular on his elongated cries of "Scatterbrain". The album ends, however, on what is, even by Radiohead's standards, a very odd piece of music. Starting with Jonny Greenwood playing guitar arpeggios, Thom Yorke's vocals are delivered in the style of what is alarmingly close to a freestyle rap. While this sounds potentially disastrous (can you imagine telling someone after the release of The Bends
that Radiohead would do something like this?), it works very well, although if you're planning to think about the lyrics, it's probably best to say they're about paranoia, as Yorke's train of thought vocals defy any immediate analysis.
In short, Radiohead's 6th studio album is more a collection of songs than a coherent album. Although it has a wide range of styles on, some of which have been visited before by the band, some of which haven't, there's no overriding "sound" of this album, which leaves the listener confused, as does the final track. When asked what future plans for the band included, Thom Yorke responded "loud stuff with computers", meaning that, once again, we have no idea what a next Radiohead album could be like. While this is comforting in a way (we'd be surprised if Thom Yorke revealed a return to power chords), it's also hard to avoid the feeling that given such a muted critical response to this album, another one like it might mark the mass media finally starting to lose interest in the band.
Where I End And You Begin
A Wolf At The Door
Final Rating: 3.8/5