Thom Yorke Is No Jeff Spicoli

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

Thom Yorke Is No Jeff Spicoli

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

Thom Yorke Is No Jeff Spicoli
The year on rewind.
June 4 2003 11:44 AM

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

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Dear Gerry,

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Your question about "cultural scale" is a good one, and maybe I was overstating things a bit to force the issue. I don't mean the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is as popular as Led Zeppelin, or as good. I chose those artists—Missy, Beatles, Pharrell, etc.—to establish the perimeters of a wide playing field. Some, like Darnielle, have been working with simple elements and reduced means for years. Some, like Missy and Pharrell, affect the weather the instant they step out the door. Some are just facts of life, like Zep and the Beatles. Small and large, I think these artists are more emotionally and aesthetically daring than Radiohead, and history will reflect this.

Where does this talk of "blood pressure" come from? We disagree, is all, and that's fun! I brought up the critical reception not just because I think there are artists who deserve coverage more, but because the average listener and Slate reader is more likely to have seen Radiohead on the cover of a magazine, or read your New York Times magazine profile, than to have heard their music. (Radiohead don't spend a lot of time in the Top 10, Kid A's visit notwithstanding. And since metal and rap have been going No. 1 without MTV since Soundscan started, I'm also not sure why Kid A debuting at No. 1, and falling quickly, is relevant.) In England and America, the only band that scores more covers than the White Stripes is Radiohead, even if there's only a record review inside. So why not talk about the press?

I was a musician before I wrote criticism, and I can say that everyone I play with talks about Timbaland, but Radiohead have yet to come up. (I am not a classical musician, and that may have something to do with it.) Authenticity and marginality are your terms, not mine. I have little use for them as metrics, and I didn't suggest that Radiohead's failures have anything to do with them. And why did I bring up protest? Dude, they named the record Hail to the Thief, not me. You also ask "[W]hen Jay-Z raps 'We back home, screaming 'Leave Iraq alone,' " what in the world are you hearing?" Well, I'm hearing the biggest black hip-hop star in the world telling the U.S. government to stay out of Iraq. Are you hearing something else?

Much as people like a good donnybrook, I think everyone would like us to get back to the record. So I'll leave my meta-objection at this: I liked Echo and the Bunnymen a lot, but nobody ever took them seriously. Why people do take Radiohead so seriously confuses me, especially since Echo's Best Of and Radiohead's would be neck and neck.

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I've spent the last week giving Radiohead the benefit of the doubt, but an element in their music keeps holding me up. They rarely play anything lively, and they're moving closer and closer to long sustained sounds and subdued timekeeping. My favorite song on Hail, "Sail to the Moon," is definitely on that road. It works because I think they commit to it fully, and there's a gorgeous melody containing all the vapors. (It's a sexy tune. I can imagine it playing during a movie scene: two young ravers coming home at 6 a.m. and losing their virginity, very slowly.) But too often, they sell us sketches. "Backdrifts"—what is that? Where is it? Because Yorke's voice flirts with a whine, songs tend to go better when the band fights back against his voice—like "I Might Be Wrong" or "Airbag"—or goes along with him—"Pyramid Song." When things just gafuffle down the middle, like "Backdrifts" or "Go to Sleep," the default position doesn't save them. The rhythm section's weakness sinks these tunes—we could be motoring along happily, loving the repetition, but we're not. The opening figure in "There There" is very Sonic Youth. Once the song gets going at the end, it works. The guitar noises are good, and the slight dissonance in the harmony is pleasing, but it does take a while. Then we get "A Punchup at the Wedding"— I have to ask you about beats and bass lines again. Is this what you meant? To me, this sucker just drags. "Myxomatosis" has the best drumming on the record, but it sounds like it might be drum machine. It's also got the best bass line, which I'm 98 percent sure is a keyboard. And it's a great vamp but it doesn't go anywhere. I'm thinking "rehearsal tape."

I'd be surprised if Radiohead fans thought Hail ranked with their best work. It feels a bit like Kid A, stitched together, though I prefer Hail. In all the back-catalog listening I've done, Amnesiac really stands out. I think it's their best album, powerful despite the vague anomie running through it, focused even when it gets spacey. OK Computer is the easiest to like because it has the courage of its convictions, and a physical force puts across the high drama.

I'm left thinking Thom and Jonny might make a killer duo. (My wife just walked in and said, "It's obviously about the voice," and left. I'm feeling very prolix all of a sudden.) "Scatterbrain" is sweet, but listen—the band is mostly staying out of Thom's way. I guess I'm a ballad man where Radiohead is concerned. Amnesiac is really impressive. That album does make me think I've been a bit tough on them. I mean, I should have dropped the other shoe with the Merchant Ivory line. I liked Howard's End. I'd see it again. It just isn't Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Breathless. That's all.

I look forward to your thoughts. Maybe if you rhapsodize about these guys, I can understand why people feel so strongly about them.

Yrs,
Sasha

P.S. I have to add: To suggest that the Mountain Goats don't show up for shows is irresponsible. Darnielle saw this exchange and e-mailed me to say that he's missed a grand total of one show and that because of icy road conditions. Anyone who tours in a car or remembers how Metallica's Cliff Burton died will take that cancellation seriously. And you called his songs "autobiographical." Why? Because he sings in the first person? Did Johnny Cash shoot a man in Reno? Did Bob Marley shoot the sheriff? Will I always love you? This seems lazy, Gerry, and it weakens your objection a bit.

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