Radiohead has undergone a multitude of changes since their debut release Pablo Honey (1993). Frontman Thom Yorke has lost the hideous coiffures, met Michael Stipe of R.E.M., turned into a whiny, left-wing, pretentious fuck, something I like to call "Michael Stipe Syndrome." (On an irrelevant note, his wife had their first child recently, which I'm only including in this review as food for thought -- is he really allowed to attempt reproduction? Thom Yorke gets laid?) A brief rundown of other superficial changes in the band: Jonny looks a little less like Jackie Onassis, Phil lost his hair and also had a kid, Colin lost the Jean Claude Van Damme ponytail, and Ed remained reasonably attractive.
Radiohead's music has always been evocative of Thom Yorke's personal dilemmas and reactions to pop culture. Pablo Honey, released in the midst of the grunge era, rode the wake of Kurt Cobain's long-haired, flannel-shirt-wearing, angst-ridden, give-me-heroin, Courtney Love-marrying, I-hate-myself-and-I-want-to-die, anyone-can-play-guitar influence on America's adolescents. It's not too much of a surprise that their first single "Creep" clawed its way to the top of the charts and into young American hearts. It's somewhat of a love song, akin to Nirvana's "Come As You Are," except with less self-esteem and louder guitar riffs. Although there are some respectable songs on the album, Pablo Honey definitely reflects exactly what they were at the time: a standard bunch of (post-pubescent?) British boys willing to sacrifice musical integrity for rock stardom. The album seems to have been produced (by Paul Kolderie) with that idea in mind, and you can't doubt that the members of Radiohead look at their Pablo Honey era videos hanging their heads in complete and utter shame. (See the video for "Stop Whispering" if you don't know what I'm talking about. Yorke looks like one of the monsters from Fraggle Rock.) As we all know, "Creep" catapulted Radiohead into the American public eye, but their success was short-lived and left them in the one-hit wonder column.
Two years later, The Bends (1995) made it apparent that Radiohead was capable of much more than mediocre guitar rock and boring lyrics. Although the music was somewhat in the same woe-is-me rock vein that characterized their first album, they had obviously begun to take more liberties with their own ideas and talents, rather than looking for mere commercial success. (After all, the lads were jaded from what had happened with Pablo Honey.) The production (John Leckie) was less restricting, they had new instruments (e.g. the Fender Rhodes keyboard on "Planet Telex" pleasures the ears almost sexually), and Yorke was taking advantage of the possibilities of his voice. (He recorded the vocals for "Planet Telex" while drunk and the vocals for "Fake Plastic Trees" immediately after a Jeff Buckley show because he was so moved by Buckley's vocal ability). The Bends was critically acclaimed; ironically, the album was largely based on the limitations that are inherent in the war between commercialism and artistry. For example, "Fake Plastic Trees" describes how artificial and plastic society has become, and "My Iron Lung" is addressed directly to tasteless teenage trend whores. Since then, the band has somehow continued to overcome the association between popular music and artistic invention.
It was with the release of OK Computer in '97 (produced by Nigel Godrich) that Radiohead marked its territory in musical history, much like a dog making his mark on a fire hydrant. The music on this album was a perfect mixture of creativity, technology (they began using drum machines and hip synthesizers), critical thought (if you look hard on the Internet, you can find a paper some sheltered and probably clinically depressed guy wrote comparing George Orwell's 1984 to OK Computer), and historic musical influences ("Subterranean Homesick Alien" was meant to sound akin to Miles Davis's "Bitch's Brew," the segmented style of "Paranoid Android" and the chord structure of "Karma Police" were directly influenced by the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Sexy Sadie," respectively, and Jonny's interest in contemporary composers such as Penderecki was evident in "The Tourist," which he wrote). The album was hailed by critics, and Radiohead fans began popping up out of nowhere. Millions of copies were sold internationally, and Radiohead, in a strange twist of fate, managed to keep its integrity and music cred.
After OK Computer, there was nothing Radiohead could do that critics and fans wouldn't admire. Accompanying paraphernalia was released, beginning with the 2-part singles so that you had to buy both singles of the same song to get all of the B-sides. Their fan club and shop W.A.S.T.E. (a term taken from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49) began selling all sorts of odds and ends that you would never need, and they began plastering their albums and web site with artwork and text representative of their political views, ironically masking their great commercial success and production in a mess of Noam Chomsky quotes, freeing the Tibetan monks, and dropping third-world debt. They released 7 Television Commercials, a collection of seven of their music videos from The Bends and OK Computer, as well as Meeting People is Easy, a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the rigors of touring that seemed more like an undergraduate art school video project than a feature-length documentary.
There were three years between OK Computer and Kid A (2000), but their loyal fans followed them like night bugs drawn to a sodium-burning light. Fans and critics had high expectations for Kid A, and they rose to the challenge by releasing a quite pretentious concept album that used both old and new electronic sounds, embodying the ideas of technology's grip on society in their music. Fittingly, they would periodically broadcast shows on the Internet to promote the album; these webcasts were largely unsuccessful due to their bandwidth's inability to handle such a large audience.
From listening to Kid A, it's apparent that the band had been listening to a lot of Bjork, Squarepusher, and Aphex Twin, and that these artists do the sound much better than Radiohead from an objective standpoint. For the first time since Pablo Honey, their interpretations of their major influences did not quite produce a new sound. Regardless, when Kid A is taken in context of the rest of their career, and seen as a concept album, it is a complete victory for the band. Yorke turned down the blatant emotions that flooded his previous songs, but the album still remains very emotional in a restrained way -- appropriate for the ideas behind Kid A. They used technology and its limited ability to fully portray emotion in a way that expressed exactly that idea. They didn't lose their commercialism, though; the album was released on 10" LP, cassette, special book edition CD, regular edition CD, and regular edition CD with secret booklet.
Amnesiac, the latest offering from Yorke & Co., is actually a collection of songs they had recorded during the Kid A sessions that didn't make the final cut. Since it is being released so soon after Kid A, there is not a great expectation for the band to produce yet another magnum opus; all the fans are expecting from this album is a collection of b-sides. As expected, Amnesiac's eleven tracks don't flow together like the tracks of Kid A, but the music is gratifying nonetheless -- a refreshing departure from the pretension. Although newer fans of Radiohead are likely to appreciate Kid A more than Amnesiac, old school Radiohead fans like myself will probably appreciate Amnesiac for not indulging in Kid A's meticulous foreplay.
The album begins with the well-crafted drum noises of "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box," that remind the listener of those in the song "Kid A," but without the overbearing effects that were slathered all over the track and album. Here, Yorke's voice is given plenty of room to roam. An additional example: "Morning Bell" on Kid A sounds like Yorke is singing through a comb and wax paper. The seventh track of Amnesiac, "The Morning Bell Amnesiac," is a version of the same song, but thankfully, Yorke's voice sounds au naturel on this rendition. "Pyramid Song" and "You and Whose Army" are piano pieces reminiscent of "Exit Music (for a film)" from OK Computer, with a comforting underwater ambiance. "I Might Be Wrong" is a simple and efficiently pleasing track, and it's easily my favorite on the album. My only complaint is that Yorke's vocals seem subdued for the song's overall feeling; consequently, the song is much better live when Yorke performs with the abandon of a hyperactive first-grader.
There are two duds on the album: "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" and "Knives Out." The former is a pathetic stab at electronic avant-garde; they try to tread the fine line between pure shit and well-constructed chaotic noise and wind up neck-deep in the former. (It seems that most of their substandard tracks from all albums fall victim to the tiresome, repetitive unimaginative-electronic-music style.) The latter is a plain, boring, repetitive, run-of-the-mill British pop song.
After the fame, fortune, drama, multiple hairstyles, firstborn children, and antics, Radiohead is still able to return to their roots of good, clean, heartrending pop-rock -- ideal for the fans who have been around since their first couple of albums. And for those that weren't, there are plenty of Kid A abstactions to satisfy you too.