Standing on their shoulders to punch their faces

Apparently, while I was off getting my Jack Kerouac on, two of my favorite musicians did the unthinkable: David Berman of the Silver Jews and Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady dared to criticize Radiohead.  (Berman here and Kubler here, both links via Stereogum).  Predictably, NASA had to come in to keep the internet from imploding in upon itself.  Now, catty name-calling (check out NME’s typically British headline on the Hold Steady piece) and comment-baiting (both articles are listed among the most commented on Stereogum) aside, Berman and Kubler make some interesting points.  If nothing else, they should be praised for daring to have a differing opinion.  Radiohead has entered the Realm of the Untouchable where, nestled alongside Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, they can release virtually anything to critical acclaim.  This is dangerous, dangerous territory; if artists can’t criticize Radiohead for making a pretty meh record, can Radiohead really compare America under Bush to an Orwellian state?  Hail to the thief, indeed.

So, in the name of the First Amendment and Barack Obama’s vice presidential announcement, I’ve decided to make my voice heard.  This is a change I can believe in.  

 

David Berman: To me, what I would like to hear from Radiohead would be something besides a feeling. I would like it if Radiohead would sing something that you could take with you.

Pitchfork: That you could put in your pocket.

 

I just got my computer back from the shop, and was startled when I looked in iTunes and realized that I’ve listened to “15 Step” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” ten times each.  Besides the buckling drums that kick off “15 Step” (the first ten seconds of the album, in other words), I couldn’t really tell you much about In Rainbows.  When I put my top ten list together back in December/January, it didn’t even cross my mind to put Radiohead on the list (and I was reaching for things to fill it out, too: I included Akron/Family’s Love is Simple, a record that I still don’t think I’ve listened to the whole way through).  I couldn’t quote more than two or three lines of lyrics for you, and I could possibly pin the title on one or two other tracks.

I listened to In Rainbows again today, and I still feel the same way that I’ve felt since it came out: nothing.  And that’s where I disagree with Berman; he thinks that they’re only singing about feelings, and I get nothing but frost.  This is a cold, cold record.  With the exception of the minor rock-out that closes “Bodysnatchers,” there’s very little emotion here at all.  “All I Need” was lauded when the record initially dropped as being Thom Yorke’s first straight-ahead love song.  If this is what he thinks it sounds like to be in love, then someone needs to wake him up; there’s not an ounce of passion anywhere in here, from the ship-rowing bass piano to the sheer boredom in his voice.  In their review, Blender said that In Rainbows is “primarily composed of love songs … that are starving for human connection but generate all the interpersonal warmth of a GPS system.”  I agree with the GPS image, but if these would-be lovers were really starving, wouldn’t they cry out to be fed?  Wouldn’t there be pain, aching, or at the very least some sense of want?  The computer voice in “Fitter Happier” sounds more passionate.

This is Radiohead, though, so the record sounds great.  The production is beautiful; the cymbals in “Reckoner,” in particular, sound wonderful, even if the verse is kinda a rip-off of Midlake’s “Roscoe.”  And I think that that’s how Radiohead got by on this one — they made a record that sounds like a great record, even though it isn’t.  Its universal acceptance says something that Radiohead themselves would appreciate: we’re not really paying attention, are we?  With ears at half-mast, In Rainbows sounds like it’s probably pretty epic, and it fits well in the small spaces behind Facebook and Tumblr.  I’m sure that that’s not Radiohead’s intention with In Rainbows — though I do think that they’re clever and talented enough to pull something like that off — but I do think that it’s true, and it gets at what Berman meant when he said that he wishes Radiohead would make “something that you could take with you.”  This music does not stick; it’s been slicked up in production and it slides by on a combination of name recognition and mute buttons.  In Rainbows?  Sounds more like Greyscale.  

There’s another quote from Berman, much further down in the interview, where he says

Never before has there been a “greatest band in the world” who had so little to say about anything. 

And he’s right.  I don’t feel like Radiohead have anything to say.  Are they great musicians, composers, arrangers, and producers?  Of course.  But so is Steve Vai, and I don’t see anyone making his case as World’s Greatest Artist.  And that’s because he’s not making art, and he may not even claim to (beats me; I’ve never read an interview with him); he’s just flexing his talent, and I can respect him for that.  But Radiohead do fancy themselves artists, or it’s at least the banner that’s at constant peril of being shrugged off of their apathetic shoulders.  And they certainly looked like artists eight years ago, the last time they released a record that had any teeth.  Listening to “Everything in its Right Place” (an ironic title by now), and listen to Thom’s moaning and the swirls and groans that slurry behind him, and try not to be drawn in.  That was — and still is — great art.  But at this point in their career, Radiohead have become some sort of sly self-portrait, a fancy frame done up to distract you from the fact that there’s nothing going on on the canvas.  In fact, there may not be a canvas there at all.

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Comments
4 Responses to “Standing on their shoulders to punch their faces”
  1. Robbie says:

    I definitely agree that Radiohead have nothing to say, but doesn’t that beg the question, what should they be saying? Should we look to pop singers to diagnose our modern condition, like previous generations looked to people like TS Eliot or, someone Berman namechecks, Emily Dickenson? I think pop music’s failure in this sense is a symptom of it’s status as a mixed medium: it dabbles in music and it dabbles in poetry, but compared to pure music, which is evaluated in terms specific to music and music theory, or poetry, which is likewise evaluated according to standards internal to the discipline, rock and roll is an abject failure. We can’t call the Beatles Mozart or Ellington, nor Bob Dylan Milton or Shakespeare.

    It is pop art, like comic books, and it uses it’s mixed medium status as a crutch. But if we can learn to accept this sobering fact, I think it puts pop music into its proper perspective. I mean, what did T. Rex have to say, or Otis Redding (whom I’m currently listening to), or even the Talking Heads? Just because the music in pop is elementary compared to jazz or classical and the lyric poetry falls far short of even Ginsberg, much less Keats, doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. The mixed medium is also an advantage: it conveys mood and tone in a much more primal and immediate way that either pure music or pure poetry (its no accident that lyric poetry began in the tradition of bards, who always performed in song and accompanied by a lyre).

    So it may be to a band like Radiohead’s detriment that they take themselves too seriously and fail to deliver the sentiment they seem to want to communicate–a point which you make well in your criticism of the record. But maybe, and this is what I see as the record’s virtue. They’re not trying to make a grand statement or even to paint a picture with mood an feelings. Maybe they’ve grown to be a band who loves to compose pop music, and that is as much about the song structure, melodic content, and overall delivery as it is about its lyrical content–a point on which you wisely differ from Berman. And in that respect I think this album is great; it’s not an album like Kid A or OK Computer, in the sense that it tries to transcend the constraints of pop music (somewhat naively, as I’ve come to belive, and if you know me that’s about as big a 180 as there ever was), but it excels in the vain of Rubber Soul: the songs are great for the most part–although I think “All I Need” is as cheap and heavy handed as a Coldplay song–and the songs come off polished and crafted with the hands of masters. It’s what they would have made going into the studio twelve years ago, as if to make The Bends, but with twelve years more experience and knowledge under their collective belt.

    PS. This whole diatribe is also the reason why I think S.M. is the greatest post-modern rock lyricist. He sings about nothing, so you don’t have to listen to the lyrics. It’s as close to pure music as pop has gotten in a long time.

  2. satisfied75 says:

    i’ll never understand you radiohead hataz

  3. mrrrty says:

    I’m not hatin’, I just want to see them make music that’s actually important, as opposed to music that just seems important.

  4. Amanda says:

    It’s refreshing to see something that isn’t lauding Radiohead. I’m a Radiohead fan from way back, but something about “In Rainbows” is definitely frosty. Listening to it, I also felt nothing.

    And I’m the kind of person who can’t really like music unless it’s passionate and emotional – doesn’t matter if its happy, sad, fucked up, whatever – it just needs some kind of feeling. Otherwise I feel like it’s Muzak, and not something to actively listen to.

    Thanks for writing this article. It really made me think.

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