Radiohead With a View

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

Radiohead With a View

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

Radiohead With a View
The year on rewind.
June 3 2003 11:14 AM

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

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Dear Gerry,

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You're right—I neglected description and went for the aerial view. This is largely because I don't think there's much here to describe, musically. Thom is what the English side of my family would call a "moody gus," and once his voice sets the scene, it's done. It's a one-set play, Hail to the Thief. "I'm tongue-tied," he says at one point, and that sums up the feeling here. He and the boys seem to be sort of unhappy about something, but it's hard to tell what—it's all very sort of. It's not because the lyrics aren't giving me obvious answers. It's just that there is little emotional impact in all this moaning, and picking apart the musical material hasn't left me any answers as to where it's all going. I have nothing against a good mope. Melancholy music can be confident and immediate: Who could hear 10 seconds of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" and not be transported? Radiohead songs, in general, don't pack that kind of punch. I think doubt is their engine, really, and that's an odd place to start a pop record. Not necessarily wrong, but it's hard to make compelling.

I think the first five or six songs are pretty, especially "Sail to The Moon" and "2+2 = 5." Yorke is harmonizing with himself very well, I agree. Our taste in beats and bass lines is clearly at odds, though. Seeing the name of Motown genius bassist James Jamerson and Radiohead in the same sentence gave me a start. I listened twice for anything like a Jamerson bass line, and all I came up with was "Where I End and You Begin," which has a decent imitation of Gang of Four's Dave Allen (a popular strategy in New York right now). What "beats" there are are pretty static, but I think downbeats and syncopation mean little to Radiohead, so the lack thereof doesn't interfere with the good bits.

I agree 100 percent that Yorke is no Paul Krugman—his politics are, as you say, glib and gnomic, at best. But protest coming from a band with Radiohead's following would be significant. Maybe not smart or revelatory, but relevant and ballsy.

I agree that Radiohead are all about producing sensibilities and are indebted to Modernism but not, perhaps, in the ways you suggest. (I also think the Beatles [cute, lots of studio time] and Godard [where else did they get their subtitles from?] and modern composition [the dissonance] accurately describe points on a circle around both Radiohead and Oxford so I'll stick to my original linking of band and town. And I see more Godard in LaBute than in Almodóvar, but that's another conversation.) You describe Modernism's rules as: "Valuing intelligence and discretion, challenging their materials and methods, making music that is (by pop music standards) 'difficult'—that is, slow to reveal its manifold pleasures and ultimately about nothing so much as the thing itself."

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The first problem with this is that Modernism, especially the English literary variety born in the '20s at Oxbridge, was explicitly a rejection of popular culture and the masses. (John Carey has written a short, great, reader-friendly account of this called The Intellectuals and the Masses, for anyone who wants to read up on this.) But rock is popular culture, whether or not Radiohead wants to admit it. So, their work takes place not under Modernism's rules, but under pop music's, and it needs to be judged as such. (I doubt, for instance, they've returned any of the checks from the sales of their pop CDs.) Their work reeks of that middlebrow embrace of Modernist gestures without any of Modernism's heavy lifting.

Problem 2 makes problem 1 irrelevant. "[C]hallenging materials and methods" and "making music that is … ultimately about nothing so much as the thing itself" is a pretty good definition of hip-hop, which buried Modernism forever. The music powering hip-hop poetics has driven through, over, and around the Beatles' Modernism about 15 times. (And I love the Beatles—we're only measuring amounts of "Modernism" here.) Hip-hop also has bled into so much pop music that we can extend the term simply to pop, a genre that now accommodates formal lunacy and sweet, sweet harmonies without any of the guilt Radiohead seem to feel. I think that started with the Beatles, too, actually, and if John Lennon were alive, I think he'd take Missy Elliott over Radiohead in a heartbeat.

You describe "Sit Down, Stand Up" as "something I've never heard before, something, quite literally, sensational." It actually sounds like a polite version of a Can song, but there's no reason any normal person would know an obscure German rhythm band from the '70s. On its own merits, "Sit Down, Stand Up" sounds pretty good, if polite. Then you ask: "How many pop recordings that come your way today give you that?"

To which I'd answer, there are dozens of songs on the radio every year that are sensational, that surprise me, and most of them make Radiohead sound like the conservatives they ultimately are. A song on English radio right now springs to mind: Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv U." It's a rapid distillation of teen sex politics over what sounds like an amplified handball game. Every time I hear it, I am delighted that somebody thought it up. The sheer sound of it makes the little electronic squiggles and boinks on Hail to the Thief sound as quaint as they are. But let's take stuff that's available now on the radio in New York, where we both are. Jay-Z and Panjabi MC's collaboration "Beware of the Boys" pits a Punjab vocal about a young girl who needs to avoid lecherous boys like Jay-Z against Jay-Z himself saying, among other things, "We back home, screaming 'Leave Iraq alone'." The track itself? The traditional dhol drum and tumbi combined with the theme from Knight Rider? It's conceptually exciting, formally thrilling, and culturally loaded. I could go on for pages—I heard a Timbaland beat on Hot 97 the other day that seems to be made of horse hooves. The tATu single "All the Things She Said" has more compelling singing in the first minute than the whole Radiohead album has.

My point isn't necessarily to agitate against Radiohead, or Hail to the Thief, half of which really pleases me. I think they're adorable, and I like their lullabies. It's the reception and their context that I object to. Putting them up the cultural scale anywhere near the Beatles or Missy or the Mountain Goats or Led Zeppelin or Pharrell Williams is suspect. They're the Merchant Ivory of rock, reassuring people that nothing in that big bad world of popular culture has really happened in the last 30 years.

Sasha Frere-Jones is Slate's music critic and a writer and musician in New York.