Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Prog Cognition and the Future of ?

No Hope Radio

book cover

Can we agree that the tortured expectations surrounding Hail to the Thief involve more than the artistic worth of a wacky little prog band from Oxford UK? At stake isn't just whether Radiohead have returned to the songful days of yesteryear without losing their avant-nerve. At stake is nothing less than the future of rock itself. For upon those Oxonians now has fallen the dubious, dangerous mantle of Only Band That Matters.

Since I'm not known as a Radiohead fan, some may think this sarcasm, but it's not. To say Radiohead is the only youngish band standing that combines critical consensus with the ability to fill a venue larger than the Hammerstein Ballroom is a simple statement of fact. Even if you prefer Wilco or the White Stripes, you have to grant not just the Americans' lesser profitability but their lesser ambition and stature. Aptly, however, the simple statement comes trailing two complex hedges.

Radiohead are beset not only by the usual wages-of-fame issues, which they're handling better than Nirvana, but by the reduced value of those wages in dollars and pence. When they surfaced 10 years ago, the record industry was a road to riches down which sped many estimable bands, all focusing on principle with stars in their eyes. Now the same industry is in a slump worse, perceptually, than any in living memory. With sales lagging and blame flying, intelligent guitar-toting white guys, a growth sector in grunge-besotted 1993, have been marginalized commercially by hip-hop, teenpop, adultpap, and Creed. No matter how far above the cash nexus the guitar toter stands--a vantage the five Oxonians can afford--this slump exacerbates the aura of crisis and anxiety that rock bands have made a currency since the Beatles got serious. If Radiohead don't keep the artistic faith while maintaining their cultural clout, it's gonna feel like doomsday--inside what remains of the biz's idealistic wing, and also among the vaguely oppositional student types who dominate the tastemaking sector of Radiohead's audience.

Of course, the latter may not notice any difference, because doomsday is Mr. Radiohead's neighborhood. Go to their page in the All Music Guide and find under Tones (capitalized like the Platonic forms they are): "Enigmatic, Somber, Reflective, Intense, Plaintive, Wistful, Bittersweet, Paranoid, Gloomy, Wintry, Poignant, Aggressive, Theatrical, Eerie, Earnest, Melancholy, Angst-Ridden, Brooding." Sounds pretty inviting, doncha think? No wonder they matter so much. (Right, now I'm being sarcastic.) Radiohead's 18 Tones give them more than the Beatles (or the White Stripes, who garner a mere six) but fewer than Nirvana, with whom they share Paranoid, Angst-Ridden, Brooding, and Gloomy, as well as (whew) Intense and Aggressive--but not, for instance, Raucous, Rebellious, Fiery, Volatile, or Wry. Say hello to hedge number two, which is how partial Radiohead's consensus must remain. No more so than the White Stripes', probably. But for the Only Band That Matters to command such a wan emotional palette limits the upside of their appeal, and this bodes ill for intelligent guitar toters. Because Radiohead are no Nirvana rangewise, prog-besotted 2003 will never be.

Which concerns their admirers hardly a whit. Among both critics and online opinionizers, the discussion of whether Hail to the Thief has real songs on it is invariably couched in terms of the discussants' satisfaction rather than the band's reach. So while it would be perverse for a political prog like me to scoff at Radiohead's leftish bent--expressed not just in Thom Yorke's alienated allusions but in such concrete acts as, for instance, the band's rejection of Clear Channel venues and their politically explicit website--its practical consequences are nugatory. Solidarity is not a big goal of Radiohead fans. Not only that, the thief isn't George W. Bush. That's what Yorke says, and I believe him.

It should surprise no one that the correct answer to the puzzle of whether Hail to the Thief reclaims the songforms of OK Computer or cultivates the soundscapery of Kid A and Amnesiac is both. Once it's established that songform is on the table--that they haven't gone ahead and made the Metal Machine Music neocons like Nick Hornby thought Kid A was--what else would you expect? Radiohead's musical ideas changed with the soundscape sessions, so naturally those ideas now enter their songcraft. There's more melody on the new album, though never as elegiac and lyrical as on "Subterranean Homesick Alien," and more guitar, though it's never as articulate and demented as on "Paranoid Android." But Hail to the Thief flows better than OK Computer; it's not so self-regarding. For most of the band's fans, the synthesis comes as relief enough--after all, the reason the readers of the British magazine Q absurdly voted OK Computer the greatest album of the 20th century is that it integrated what was briefly called electronica into rock. But skeptics like myself--and though I enjoy mocking their inflated reputation, I ended up rating Kid A and Amnesiac pretty high--may demur. Among critics and occasionally fans, there are those who much prefer their soundscape mood--or make that groove.

First there's the obvious matter of Yorke's lyrics, which even the band's loopier admirers rarely dwell on, not because they disapprove, but because how much is there to say about, to choose something succinct: "Sit down./Stand up./Walk into/The jaws of hell./ Anytime. Anytime./We can wipe you out/Anytime. Anytime./ THE RAINDROPS." That's the entirety of Hail to the Thief's "Sit down. Stand up." except that "the raindrops" repeats 47 times, providing ample opportunity for the listener to wonder when songwriters will stop giving precipitation a raw deal. Over the years, Yorke has tended to simplify and clarify his imagery. So with a few exceptions (notably "Myxomatosis," named for, if not about, a rabbit disease that swept Britain in 1953), the language on the new album is quite basic and its import fairly direct--how about that, Thom Yorke is bummed. Maybe there's more there, of course. Tom Moon of the Philadelphia Inquirer argues intriguingly that Yorke casts himself here as "the last individualist in a colony of worker drones," who resists mind control by "think[ing] in junk scrambles." But in the unlikely event this theory is true, it proves mainly that Moon is cleverer than Yorke--labored concept, imaginative read.

Anyway, few Radiohead fans need or want so much specificity. All they ask is a Tone--call it Bummed, why not?--that's dramatized and rendered perceptible by the music. Music is without question foremost here, not lyrics or image or mystique. So for us skeptics, it's unfortunate that this music must begin with Yorke's singing. While stray suggestions that Yorke's vocal equipment is operatic overstate a power and range dwarfed by Jeff Buckley's as well as Pavarotti's, they certainly get at what people love about him--a pained, transported intensity, pure up top with hints of hysterical grit below, that has as little Africa in it as a voice with those qualities can. Fraught and self-involved with no time for jokes, not asexual but otherwise occupied, and never ever common, this is the idealized voice of a pretentious college boy. Its attractions for Radiohead's fan base are self-evident. But like it or not the voice is remarkable, and many others respond as well. Opera fans? That's too simplistic, and also too kind to opera fans. But it certainly gets at who else loves him.

In the most percipient analysis of Radiohead I've found, The New Yorker's Alex Ross calls a pivot tone a pivot tone: "There are times when Radiohead seem to be practicing a new kind of classical music for the masses." Ross goes into detail about why Radiohead's innovations are more deeply ingrained than ELP or King Crimson turning "orchestral crescendos and jazz freak-outs into another brand of kitsch," and he's convincing. From Eric Bachmann to Vanessa Carlton, Radiohead guitarmeister Jonny Greenwood is hardly the only classically trained young rocker out there, and from my musically illiterate fastness I always wonder, for instance, whether there isn't something else on Pablo Honey with a harmonic fillip as grand as "Creep"'s "regal turn from G major to B major," only nobody noticed because the song sucked. Nevertheless, it behooves the White Stripes contingent to acknowledge that for sure sonically, no doubt harmonically, and perhaps structurally, there isn't another band in the world who deliver the goods like Radiohead--including the far more elementary Coldplay, cited as inheritors because the other candidates are totally implausible, and Wilco with its damn treatments. OK Computer, where I've trained myself to enjoy three or four songs now, is rife with discrete pleasures and surprises. You can hear ears thinking all over their records.

Discrete is the idea. This is for the better if you believe songs should stand there hand on hips and demand you stop and listen--that in music, construction-shaped classical cogitation is the model of effective thought. It isn't for the better if you prefer that listeners absorb disturbing information on their feet--if you believe rhythm implies a healthier future than harmony. The reason I conceive Kid A as more groove than mood is that even when its details demand reflection--which usually they don't, they pass too fast and Yorke's voice is basically decorative--the music's movement implies an equally engrossing moment just up ahead. The reason most prefer OK Computer is that they cherish a more conventional and perhaps accurate conception of how minds should work. Exactly how much avant-nerve you think Hail to the Thief does or doesn't retain will be determined by where you stand or prance on this question. But no matter who's right, if anyone is, the future of Hail to the Thief is unlikely to have much bearing on the future of rock or anything else.

Village Voice, July 8, 2003