Here’s what Radiohead sounds like to people who can’t stand their music (or to people like me for whom the band ceased to be interesting sometime just after the release of Kid A).
Radiohead was my “thing” in the late 90s. Up until then, their music seemed on the surface merely more of the same guitar-driven sturm of 90s alienation, thanks in no small part to “Creep” and “High and Dry” overplay on barroom jukeboxes and on increasingly mainstreamed “alternative” radio.
But around 1998-99, while living in Budapest and trying to reconcile an urge to get out from the professional rock I felt I was under, I would write my spy screenplay and smoke furiously. Usually until daybreak. In the background played a bootlegged copy of OK Computer that I bought among the labyrinthine stalls of Bosnia’s storied Arizona Market.
After who knows how many nights, or how many replays of the album, not really paying attention to the music, a very particular guitar riff on “Subterranean Homesick Alien” demanded my attention. I stopped writing, said out loud, “What was that?” and hit rewind to hear that precious sound again. I never heard anything like it; it was mezmerizing and liberating at the same time.
From there I developed a deeper admiration for the band and their unique style. I returned to earlier releases with a new-found appreciation, for the musicianship as much as for the heart-wrenchingly intense vocals.
Jump to 2000 and the much-anticipated release of Kid A, the follow up to OK Computer. I remember telling a friend it was “the most beautifully terrifying album” I’d ever heard. It spoke directly to a darker time in my life, a time of personal and spiritual exile. On the other side was Amnesiac, a weaker effort in retrospect, but at the time it was for me warmly redemptive.
Unfortunately, the group’s later albums failed to reach me in any meaningful way. The music acquired a safe laziness as if the members’ journey into their 30s damped their earlier, more aggressive style of youth. Perhaps as they got older they just got more tired. Being the same age as them, I understand that.
But more critically, I was turned off by the preachiness of the music—whereas before they railed against the ills of the world in a general and more personal sense, now that gold was turned into the dull lead of politics. The group became more known for their lefty activism, and the rancid tone of Hail to the Thief was so off-putting I don’t think I’ve listened to the entire album more than once.
I held out hope for In Rainbows, but those were quickly dashed when I acquired my free copy. Its few good tracks surpassed anything on Hail to the Thief, but overall the album sounded silly and overly theatrical.
So like a once-close friend you eventually drift apart from, Radiohead no longer is on my musical radar. I hear they’re in the middle of recording their next album, and I’ll proabably give it a listen once it’s released out of curiosity. Like occasionally wanting to see what long lost friend has been up to over the years.