I’ve played the Radiohead album about a dozen times, pushed my way in to see them live, and yes, there is a certain pleasure to be had from Kid A. What seems at first like rote, enfeebled antirockism reveals a jittery, cohesive undercurrent. Unlike most electronica, it offers the band feel of instruments set against one another. Hard-learned musicality substitutes for obvious hooks. Thom Yorke’s anagrammed vocals may not always track, but his need to extend his voice out over the chasm is never in question. The unintended lesson is this: Wander over to the dark side of the moon and you’ll find yourself more deeply reminded of rock’s satisfactions than ever.
But there’s an even more remarkable side effect that no one’s talking about. Once you’ve taken the Kid A Kool Aid, rerouted your sonic subconscious, albums you had previously dismissed as too dull to deserve another spin start to sound really really good. I mean, you can obsess on intricate dynamics with anything: It’s like trying to spot freckles. PJ Harvey’s own antirockist detour, Is This Desire?, used to strike me as too quiet and too endless. Now I hear intense, roiling textures—ant farms of miniaturism! U2’s Pop may have been the final gasp of the Achtung Baby irony-quest. Suddenly, those disco guitars come off as meaty, and if Radiohead’s new “Optimistic” ranks with OK Computer‘s “Karma Police,” “Staring at the Sun” must be as moving as Achtung Baby‘s “One.” What, I shouldn’t compare Bono with the finely wrought Yorke? Like that Kid A “sucking on lemons” routine isn’t a reference to Zooropa‘s “Lemon.”
Thankfully, the real news of the impending holiday season, for those who prefer their fun fun and their jingle bells rung, is that U2 and Polly Harvey are back among the giving. All That You Can’t Leave Behind returns to the grand gestures of old. Practically every song a potential hit single. Soulful, exuberant, at peace with its own clichés, this is one U2 record that will never be called antianything. As for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, it embraces rock guitar again with the same gulping pleasure with which Harvey is for once embracing her man. And not the thickly clumped postpunk guitar of her early work, necessarily: The ringing riff on the lead track, “Big Exit,” reminds me of “Last Train to Clarksville,” of all things. Not a lot, maybe, yet even provoking the thought is a breakthrough.
Harvey has faced a dilemma ever since the To Bring You My Love tour, when she unveiled a diva’s vocal heft and proved she could coax sounds out of side musicians as pointed as those she’d pick herself. Live, the Howlin’ Wolf of her era (however Saville Row her clothes) can turn a nonalbum B-side into “Born to Run” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as she did with “Somebody’s Down, Somebody’s Name” and the unknown “This Wicked Tongue” at a brief CMJ gig at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday. But on record, the illusion wears off. Placing blame for that is a chicken-and-egg game. Since, unlike U2 and Radiohead, she’s never achieved a radio smash or an international following, her urge to grandiosity has gradually come to seem more and more contrived, like the myth-drenched morbid streak she shares with Nick Cave.
Stories From the City offers some sacrificial lambs to the doubters. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” feels like one trip to the wasteland too many, and “Big Exit” starts off sounding so fresh it’s a bring-down to hear her revert to character with “I want a pistol/I want a gun.” “Kamikaze” has the tug-of-war rhythms of a Rid of Me outtake. Only, c’mon, Rid of Me is one of the best rock albums of all time. If she’s fast and loud enough, or finding new ways to shiver my timbers the way a sustained toy-keyboard tone flattens and elevates “A Place Called Home,” I don’t really care what she’s singing.
That’s Thom Yorke in focus on the lovers’ duet “This Mess We’re In,” one of several tracks as unproblematically inviting as anything she’s ever done. “Good Fortune” shakes like Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” or Hole, with Harvey diddling her vibrato to match. Credit for her loving mood supposedly goes to an extended stay in New York, which in Harvey’s romantic haze is all Woody Allen and no Martin Scorsese. “You Said Something” takes a waltzing twirl around moon-drenched rooftops; if it’s too easy to call it a U2 song (they do have an even drippier new one called “New York”), how about INXS? Yet Harvey never resorts to overproduction: She goes after this magic moment with the same artfully calibrated intensity she brought to making that other fellow lick her injuries. Then she gushes over anyway, on “This Is Love,” both the punkest and the happiest song of the year.
But neither she nor anyone else can match U2 for sustained pleasure this time out. U2 don’t rely on projecting bandness anymore the way Radiohead still do, and they’ve no single genius like Harvey. They’re an organization. Four band members, venerable producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (Radiohead want to explore ambient textures? U2 have the master working their synthesizers!), Steve Lillywhite recalled for some timeless pop gloss. Plus a dozen other techs, and I’d bet Team U2 includes nutritionists and sports therapists too, like Team Navratilova. It ought to be too cumbersome for words, let alone music. Well, long live corporate rock.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind begins with “Beautiful Day,” a rocker in their oversaturated ’90s style but with Edge’s guitar sound restored, effective because instead of lingering over gimmickry it just bullies ahead. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of” is churchly bliss, Bono testifying over his beloved Philly soul; “Elevation,” nothing but shimmy-shammy, big-beat chords and falsetto hoots. “Walk On” is an inspirational message that’s never belabored; same for “Kite,” which has this looped string bit keeping cool while Bono lets go about “who’s to say where the wind will take you.” “In a Little While” and “Wild Honey” are calmer, savoring vintage pop-rock like old friends. Though it’s downhill from there, with “Peace on Earth” and “New York” too much to take and “When I Look at the World” and “Grace” not quite striking, seven fantastic songs in a row wins my vote.
Call it their R.E.M. album, monster rock filtered through a sophisticate’s restraint. Or look back further, to the 1970s vocal Brian Eno albums that preceded his ambient work and surpass it in quality if not influence. Even an outtake from that era, like his “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” combines the futurism and reverence U2 are trading on. It’s not that they’ve regressed, or conceded an error: Keyboards still dominate this mix, Bono still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, and the zero-gravity sound separations invented for Achtung Baby still keep the genre touches floating. But as with Harvey, who on some level has finally made the Patti Smith album everyone always expected of her (inevitable joke: “Horses in My Dreams”), the lesson is that there’s plenty gold left in them there rock-and-roll hills. Veins galore.
That doesn’t invalidate Kid A, obviously; it’s better than Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, launched to the same gushing praise last year. But it amazes me how every time some burnt-out rocker goes experimental, the results are accorded automatic deference. And not just from critics: Check through some of the staggering 843 comments to date, many lengthy, that Amazon has received on Kid A—electorate divided, but the majority of the opinion that if Radiohead have another OK Computer stored up for release next spring, well, fine, but Kid A is more important. Really? Never the biggest U2 or arena rock fan, I find all my sympathies with the residue of pop aspiration Bono so righteously titled All That Can’t Be Left Behind. It’ll be interesting to see how many others do too, whether today’s collective lemon sucking passes at the first hint of sweeter fruits.
“You act like you never had love/And you want me to go without,” Mr. B once sang, on an overblown number full of generalities that became as much a standard as anything written in the 1990s. It’s not a bad thing that rock no longer exerts hegemony. U2 are no longer required to carry themselves as saviors or anti-Christs to make a great album. PJ Harvey needn’t travel hell and high water to bring you her love. They just have to remember what turned them on about this stuff in the first place. Can you?