No Hope Radio

Prog Cognition and the Future of ?

Anyway, few Radiohead fans need or want so much specificity. All they ask is a Tone —call it Bummed, why not?—that's dramatized and rendered perceptible by the music. Music is without question foremost here, not lyrics or image or mystique. So for us skeptics, it's unfortunate that this music must begin with Yorke's singing. While stray suggestions that Yorke's vocal equipment is operatic overstate a power and range dwarfed by Jeff Buckley's as well as Pavarotti's, they certainly get at what people love about him—a pained, transported intensity, pure up top with hints of hysterical grit below, that has as little Africa in it as a voice with those qualities can. Fraught and self-involved with no time for jokes, not asexual but otherwise occupied, and never ever common, this is the idealized voice of a pretentious college boy. Its attractions for Radiohead's fan base are self-evident. But like it or not the voice is remarkable, and many others respond as well. Opera fans? That's too simplistic, and also too kind to opera fans. But it certainly gets at who else loves him.

In the most percipient analysis of Radiohead I've found, The New Yorker's Alex Ross calls a pivot tone a pivot tone: "There are times when Radiohead seem to be practicing a new kind of classical music for the masses." Ross goes into detail about why Radiohead's innovations are more deeply ingrained than ELP or King Crimson turning "orchestral crescendos and jazz freak-outs into another brand of kitsch," and he's convincing. From Eric Bachmann to Vanessa Carlton, Radiohead guitarmeister Jonny Greenwood is hardly the only classically trained young rocker out there, and from my musically illiterate fastness I always wonder, for instance, whether there isn't something else on Pablo Honey with a harmonic fillip as grand as "Creep"'s "regal turn from G major to B major," only nobody noticed because the song sucked. Nevertheless, it behooves the White Stripes contingent to acknowledge that for sure sonically, no doubt harmonically, and perhaps structurally, there isn't another band in the world who deliver the goods like Radiohead—including the far more elementary Coldplay, cited as inheritors because the other candidates are totally implausible, and Wilco with its damn treatments. OK Computer, where I've trained myself to enjoy three or four songs now, is rife with discrete pleasures and surprises. You can hear ears thinking all over their records.

Models of cogitation: Radiohead
photo: Tom Sheehan
Models of cogitation: Radiohead

Discrete is the idea. This is for the better if you believe songs should stand there hand on hips and demand you stop and listen—that in music, construction-shaped classical cogitation is the model of effective thought. It isn't for the better if you prefer that listeners absorb disturbing information on their feet—if you believe rhythm implies a healthier future than harmony. The reason I conceive Kid A as more groove than mood is that even when its details demand reflection—which usually they don't, they pass too fast and Yorke's voice is basically decorative—the music's movement implies an equally engrossing moment just up ahead. The reason most prefer OK Computer is that they cherish a more conventional and perhaps accurate conception of how minds should work. Exactly how much avant-nerve you think Hail to the Thief does or doesn't retain will be determined by where you stand or prance on this question. But no matter who's right, if anyone is, the future of Hail to the Thief is unlikely to have much bearing on the future of rock or anything else.

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