Thursday, June 19, 2003
7 Days High and Dry: The Definitive Review of the New Radiohead Album
Now that's it's been a week since the release of Radiohead's latest album, Hail to the Thief, I can safely offer my review. To properly render a considered critique, I locked myself in my apartment with the new record, doing little else but give it one spin per day.
Day One: The first listen, sitting cross-legged on my sofa, eyes closed, just experiencing the music through a superior set of headphones. Initial reaction: this album is important, a watershed aural event, nothing short of a revolution in popular music. It picks up on the promise of OK Computer, delivers the goods that Kid A hinted at, and nearly makes me forget the sterling songcraft of The Bends. Amnesiac is now consigned to a fate as little more than a shiny coaster for my can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, banished to the corner of memory reserved for long-passed great aunts and advanced algebra.
I remove the headphones, knowing that I will return tomorrow to further experience the rapture a first listen merely hints at. I know that I will hardly sleep, but resist the temptation to fall asleep to Hail's beautiful lullaby. I need to come to Hail fresh in the morning, after a cup of Earl Grey.
Day Two: I am fully under Hail's spell. The second listen is full of the giddy delights of a first sexual experience, but with all of the fumbling, apologies, and awkward financial negotiations cut blissfully away. The album's myriad textures are slowly revealed. The loneliness in singer Thom Yorke's voice is a dirge like that of five thousand female Asian babies left exposed on the side of a mountain, knowing the beautiful alienation that only one utterly rejected by an ancient culture that is struggling in the depersonalization of the technological age can know.
I sob openly. The pizza delivery guy asks if there's anything he can do to help. He sits and listens to "There There," the album's ninth track with me, and embarrassed that he is also bawling, leaves me extra packets of ricotta cheese and a voucher for an order of free cinnamon sticks.
But I can't think of eating.
I go to bed hungry but not realizing it. I can only hear the haunting, electronic-but-somehow-tribal thump of "Backdrifts' " drums as I long for slumber. I forget that somewhere in my primitive brain I am vaguely annoyed that all of the tracks have parenthetical subtitles.
Day Four: Still haven't eaten. How could I when I have my fourth play of Hail awaiting me? I pop in the CD and the music rejuvenates me. This time it's voluptuous, brimming with a sexuality I hadn't grokked on the third listen. I can't quite make out what Yorke is singing in "2+2=5," but I am profoundly aroused. Hail ceases entirely to be music; it's the procreational struggle, the delicious tension that keeps singles bars overflowing with the nubile. I climax over and over, as if in the thrall of nymphomaniac Venezuelan beauty queens stranded on a tropical oasis with nothing but their carnal appetites. By the end of the tenth track, I fear that my relentless self-love is going to require surgical intervention.
But I am saved on the eleventh song, "A Punch Up at a Wedding," as I am certain John Lennon and a Pet Sounds-era Brain Wilson are briefly resurrected to hum along with a particularly winsome synth line. Then they are gone as quickly as they appeared, vanishing into the lilting ether of Yorke's fragile falsetto.
What a listen this fourth time around turns out to be. The word "important," which I'd so cavalierly thrown around on Day One, has lost all meaning. Perhaps as I try to sleep I'll conjure a better one.
Day Five: Jury duty. I'd totally forgotten. I go to the courthouse and sit around all day waiting my turn to be empanelled, then patiently explain I need to get home to listen to Hail, perhaps the greatest recording in the history of art-rock, or any other genre of music, as the ghettoization inherent in the "art-rock" label can surely not contain Hail's multitudes. An angry bailiff rolls his eyes and confiscates my CD player and a burned copy of the album.
I have to think on my feet to get back to Hail, so I earnestly tell the defense attorney that if his client is not a pure albino, I will have to deem him guilty, as only albinos are pure -- you can see their purity on the outside.
I am dismissed. The client, as it turns out, is a Latino gentleman accused of nonpayment of child support.
The fifth listen is like the fourth, only more so. My notes are incomprehensible; I can decipher only bite marks on my legal pad and, strangely, on a bottle of Lubriderm.
No food, fitful sleep.
Day Six: Something is wrong.
Backlash. I realize it instantly, but am powerless against it.
From two minutes into the first track, I am distressingly disinterested. I find myself fixated on the improperly solved titular equation of "2+2=5," and the parenthetical subtitles are driving me fucking batty. I am hyperaware of every dissonance interrupting the spaces where the hooks should be, where the songs should transition from meditations to juggernauts of harmony. Where the hell are the songs? What exactly are these Radiohead characters trying to prove without a single lyric I can sing in the shower, a melody I can whistle while mopping the kitchen floor, a drum line I can tap out on my coffee table?
I put in a copy of The Bends and cue up "Fake Plastic Trees," letting Radiohead Past and Present duke it out.
I break dishes and tug at my hair.
I divide my apartment in half with a roll of duct tape, firmly aligning myself with the new Bends fiefdom. It takes me three songs to realize that Hail has the side with the front door, the television, and the bathroom.
I don't know what I ever saw in Hail. It's overblown, pointlessly confrontational, no fun. It's a treatise, a journal presentation where a keg party should be.
I huddle up with The Bends and fall asleep with my ear pressed to its speaker.
Day Seven: I wake up to quiet. The duct tape border seems a little silly, as does the miniature Checkpoint Charlie I'd apparently set up in my sleep constructed from sofa cushions and shoe boxes. There's a cup of urine on the nightstand that I properly dispose of in the toilet, blowing past the manmade divisions that must have seemed reasonable yesterday.
I have a couple of slices of the pizza that's now unappetizingly stale, but I'm fucking starving.
I press play for the seventh spin of Hail.
You know, it's not bad. A little rock, a little electronica. Lame lyrics.
Six out of ten stars.
You know, no big whoop.