Take a voyage with Radiohead
by Sean-Paul Boynton
What is a Radiohead record? More specifically, what does an album have to be in order to be classified as such? Does it have to be life-changing, world-skewing and forward-thinking, like some of their most famous albums? Can it not just be a collection of great music that can be returned to again and again? Or does it always have to be pushing an envelope — any envelope — to be considered truly a part of the band’s “official” canon?
No matter what point in the summer you’re reading this, if you are a Radiohead fan, you have most likely already picked up and/or listened to the group’s new album, The King of Limbs. If you are indeed a member of the large majority who have taken a gander at this newest release, you have most likely landed on one of these clearly-defined opinions:
Firstly, The King of Limbs is a glorious continuation of the brilliant musical path Radiohead is still trailblazing after all these years. The album recalls the breakthroughs of their previous record, In Rainbows, while this newest offering holds a mood all its own. Or secondly, The King of Limbs is not a proper Radiohead album. At just over 37 minutes, it is too short compared to their other “real” records, and it’s over too soon to get fully lost in. Also, unlike their previous works, it doesn’t feel like a huge step forward.
No record that Radiohead has put out in their entire career has ignited such an argument, which speaks not only to the lofty expectations the band has set with each successive album, but also to the close-mindedness of its fan base.
But perhaps they have a point. Listening to a Radiohead album, by tradition, is an experience, a journey one can take through their subconscious with their eyes closed while the music exits the speakers in your room or even your car and envelops you in its loving embrace. In a time when the single has started to once again overtake the album as the primary focus point for artists and listeners (as if the heyday of the full-length album — the late ‘60s through the ‘90s — never happened) Radiohead is one of the few bands that can still force us to sit down for an extended period of time and take in a full-on piece of art.
Of course, it took them a bit to get there. Their first record, 1993’s Pablo Honey, was essentially billed (and heard) as “the hit single ‘Creep’ plus 11 other songs.” Ironically, that’s more or less the exact tagline written directly on the cover of the Beatles’ first album, which suggests all great bands must go through growing pains.
By their second album, however, Radiohead had mastered the structure of the album. When The Bends was released in 1995, people were taken aback that this group everyone had pegged as a one-hit wonder was taking them on an emotionally wrought journey through song, yet the amazement was joyous and transcendent. Rarely has a record with such distortion and lyrical dismay made us feel so high.
We only got higher when OK Computer came out two years later and shook our accepted notions of rock music to its guts. Although the band insisted it wasn’t a concept album, it sure played like one, with “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police” and the rest all speaking to the alienation we were starting to feel due to the rapid rise of technology. They spoke to fears we didn’t know we had, and we only wanted more.
By more, Radiohead seemed to think we meant they should dig even deeper, and although most of us were simply asking for more of the same, none of us will ever admit to wanting to part with Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), two companion records that distorted everything we knew about music, let alone rock. Everyone agreed Kid A was the better of the two, but listening to them back-to-back, one gets a greater appreciation for Radiohead’s refusal to play into our hands, opting instead to break everything apart and see what was inside. The answer was cold and inhuman, but we couldn’t get enough of it.
The two sides of Radiohead — the melodic rock of The Bends and OK Computer, the cold electronics and atonalism of Kid A and Amnesiac — enjoyed a rocky marriage on 2003’s Hail to the Thief, only to smooth things out for the long haul for 2007’s In Rainbows. Like the band’s other records, both were journeys unto themselves, and showed off Radiohead’s wildest extremes not just in the music, but also in the albums’ lengths: Hail to the Thief is the band’s longest album of their catalogue, while In Rainbows — until this past March — was the shortest.
Like any great band with a lot to give, each Radiohead album has its own obvious and hidden treasures; and, being truly the modern masters of album pacing, each takes us on a completely different journey… even The King of Limbs.
So this summer, take some time off and go through the Radiohead catalogue for a series of fantastic voyages: it may very well ease the pain of not being able to go on a physical getaway. And for those who think Radiohead’s latest doesn’t offer the same rewards as those before it, turn off your brain and let your mind wander forth. You may be surprised what you find.