Radiohead: Rainbows in Curved Air
The analog pleasures of Radiohead's digital revolution
by Randall Roberts
(Photo by John Spinks)
There are a few different ways to get to Big Sur from Los Angeles, but in the big picture it doesn't matter which route you take, because regardless, you're leaving Los Angeles and going to Big Sur. You can take the I-5 superhighway, sure, but for a little Zen action, veer off to the Pacific Coast Highway. It's a slower cruise, less frantic, and it runs along the ocean through tiny, tony towns: the perfect route for when you need a reminder that, well, there are things in this world that you can actually feel, like a slap in the face or a sunburn, and the Web has yet to produce digital breeze or perfect seaside light. Follow PCH to the end of the earth, wend and wind by cliff and shore like the hero of an Audi commercial: sunroof open, beach and ocean on the left (replete with Frisbees and dogs and sparkling sunlight reflections), cliffs on the right, and smack-dab in the middle, a jumbo sound system in a late-model sedan and a 10-song burned CD, much ballyhooed but as yet virginal, awaiting its debut on the open road.
I don't know what autumn was like over there on the uglier coast, but on the western shore the weeks leading up to Radiohead's profitable, feel-good "leak" of In Rainbows were pretty intense, music-biz-wise. The band's enviable situation—fucking huge, contractually free of its longtime Capitol Records obligations, and on some sort of mission—had been clogging conversations among L.A. executives and interns alike. Insiders spat out juicy tidbits: At September's Arcade Fire/LCD Soundsystem show at the Hollywood Bowl, a behind-the-scenes principal hinted at an impending label deal, then stopped returning my calls. Talk of a Los Feliz dinner party starring Radiohead's management and a scrum of former major- label executives looking to take the band indie and bite the hand that previously fed them all. Rumors of a last-minute Rick Rubin swoop-in, of a fat offer declined. It felt like the major-label system was indeed collapsing—which we all know it didn't, because somebody kept pressing up Daughtry discs—when In Rainbows' pay-what-you-will solution arrived on October 10. You know the story from there: a massive data explosion of hand-wringing and prognosticating. By the time the files unzipped onto my desktop a few days after the rest of the world popped them (my e-mail got snagged in the spam filter), I was so fucking sick of Radiohead's new album (bundle?) that I didn't even load it into iTunes until three days later, whereupon I opted to hear it first while driving the Pacific Coast Highway.
So there are the shores and the cliffs and the breeze floating through them, and love is a tricky word when it comes to data beamed down from above. Can you feel that kind of love? When the album ended with the minor-chord murmur of "Videotape" (an "All Apologies" for the Internet age?), Los Angeles was gone and all that mattered were 10 beautiful songs, some of the best of the band's career, that felt so expansive, so breathtaking, that Radiohead could've delivered them via USB wristband or some other such nonsense and I still would've gotten that scalp-tingle of joy that rushes through my head when art touches my heart.
The excitement of witnessing a great band hit a peak is a timeless thrill. To hear the strummed, magnificent hook of "Bodysnatchers" flapping like a seagull in flight as Thom Yorke screams to the world, "It is the 21st century! It is the 21st century!" is as awesome an experience as watching Kurt Cobain leap into a drum kit or Joanna Newsom's fingers drift across a harp. The trebled, drunken breakbeat that kicks off "15 Step" sounds so lo-fi that at first you think, "Oh, great, this download sounds like shit. I paid $22 for this?" But it's a ruse: When Colin Greenwood's hard, dub-heavy bass powers in alongside Jonny Greenwood's loopy guitar line, the song expands, the beat becomes tethered, and speculation on the what of In Rainbows seems as unanswerable as the why of this here vista.
The best songs on In Rainbows travel many melodic roads simultaneously: Big basslines skulk alongside meandering harmonies, drifting piano tones, and deep, unassuming ambient rumbles that subtly steer you along like a rudder on an ocean liner. Point A will no doubt lead to Point B in a Radiohead song—this isn't the Fiery Furnaces we're talking about—but the pleasure is in hearing how these five dudes who've been playing together for 20 years get there. On "Reckoner," the band stays tight for most of the song as though squeezed into a cubicle, but then—boom—the walls collapse, and we're in the great, wide open with an eerie, pastoral string section.
Granted, most of the time I have no idea what Thom Yorke is talking about: Usually it's a variation on "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up." No lyrics he's ever written have floored me like, say, the first statement-of-purpose couplet on P.J. Harvey's White Chalk: "As soon as I'm left alone/The devil wanders into my soul." In most of Yorke's lyrics, lines dangle, drift, are abandoned. Is the "elephant in the room" of "Faust Arp"—the one that's "tumbling, tumbling, tumbling in duplicate and triplicate"—the same creature that a few lines later is "dead from the neck up"? How can a single elephant tumble in duplicate and triplicate? Or is this lyrical cubism? And I can't imagine another lyricist getting away with opening a song on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year with the line "Wakey wakey, rise and shine." The only Rainbows lyric that really tracks is "I have no idea what I am talking about," and it's best to take Yorke at his word and appreciate the beauty of his voice, which sustains itself like a patient bow drawn slowly across a cello. Regardless of what he's saying, Yorke conveys a profound sense of wonder and love.
Love. My friend Paul B. Davis, part of the art collective Beige, has posited that the relationship between humans and data is evolving, and that real-world emotions now figure into once-clinical computer interactions. He calls this movement Post-Data, and its aesthetic goal, he writes, is "gaining suffrage for microprocessors . . . data, in its cold and inherently meaningless incarnation, is over. Post-Data is all about feelings, and unconditional love for the bits. The Post-Data artist has an emotional attachment to the data process so strong that it's not right to just call it 'data' anymore . . . Post-Data gives you the faith to sit down, take a look at your computer, and say, 'I love you.' "
Maybe that's what In Rainbows made us feel—a rush of unexplainable emotion, a digital crush, a confirmation that things aren't like they used to be, that 2007 was a watershed that'd been building for the past decade but had yet to manifest itself fully. It felt to me like what Sam Phillips captured so eloquently in the first of Peter Guralnick's Elvis Presley biographies, Last Train to Memphis: "I was shooting for that damn row that hadn't been plowed," he explained of his quest for the King. Radiohead's 2007 felt like a similar shot: some sort of convergence that you just knew was coming, but exactly how it would arrive was still fuzzy. Now, some semblance of clarity has emerged—right?—and hearing the bundle sing from trunk-lid speakers, my head filled to the brim with Yorke's "Videotape" benediction ("No matter what happens now/You shouldn't be afraid/Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen") while a campfire spread analog warmth on my analog face, the future felt remarkably like the past: intense, full of mystery and meaning, thrilling, lovely.
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