So maybe you heard that Radiohead put out a new album, The King of Limbs, on Friday, one day earlier than planned, a gift that triggered a “live-Tweeting my first listen” torrent of unprecedented volume and ferocity, a glut of Internet-borne insta-opinions that seemed at odds with the band’s reputation for making Very Serious Music that demands to be very slowly and carefully considered. Has Limbs been cheapened by the speed at which everyone formed their opinion about it? Do Radiohead deserve any special dispensation, any critical grace period? Are Radiohead even a band worth talking about anymore? Here, SOTC’s Rob Harvilla and Zach Baron hash it out. It only gets slightly personal.
Rob: So let’s talk about Radiohead, or what we talk about when we talk about Radiohead. Specifically, how I feel bad for them. I was out of the loop for most of Friday’s live-Tweet fiesta surrounding The King of Limbs‘ release, but I got sick of it anyway, the immediate glut of insta-opinions, ill-formed and incomplete by design. And this isn’t a “professional” vs. “amateur” lament: Nobody knows what they’re hearing, or talking about, the first time you put on an album, or the third, or the fifth. And yet here we all were, doing the “Huh, sounds like dubstep”/”I wish there more guitars”/”Did the drummer quit the band?” thing.
What makes me feel bad for Radiohead is they are absolutely the worst possible band to absorb this way, in a distracted, computer-speakers, background-music, I-must-instantly-have-an-opinion-on-this fashion. A band so clearly obsessed with how you hear and consume and absorb their music, who’ve taken great pains to protect the sanctity of themselves as artists and their albums as Albums, now doomed to have judgment passed in 140-character bursts, instantaneously. I was actually thrilled with the way they handled In Rainbows: no promos, no leaks, no staggered rollout. The fact that everyone on earth pressed play at the exact same time, that for one day you knew exactly what everyone was listening to, just the faintest whiff of the monoculture that allegedly doesn’t exist anymore. I feel like the worst sort of curmudgeon now lamenting the din surrounding Limbs, laying my disdain at Twitter’s feet, begrudging people their right and ready capability to tell the world how they felt about this record in real time. But I have to imagine it bugs out Thom Yorke even more, that the new record he slaved over for however long is old news 48 hours later, that the only tangible critical reaction the world at large has had thus far is to compile amusing videos of him dancing. There should’ve been a 48-hour moratorium on talking about this, some sort of universal auto-replace that instantly turned “Radiohead” to “Libya.” Everyone just live with it for awhile first.
Given all this I’m hesitant to even get into whether or not Limbs is any good, but I strongly suspect you’re not a fan, and I’m wondering why, and if you ever were, and if Radiohead’s total ubiquity in these situations contributes to your disdain. Myself, I’m a huge fan, and after a weekend of immersion Limbs still leaves me ice cold — one of the other reasons I loved the In Rainbows hoopla is that I loved the record itself. This one, conversely, sounds at first several blushes like a cynical British dude mumbling over Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.” I totally should’ve Tweeted that.
Zach: And yet here we are, always already too late — responsible critics though we may be, we’re talking about this record on a day on which, no joke, people are already advancing conspiracy theories about the next Radiohead record. As if this particular Radiohead record weren’t still basically on pre-order, the mysterious “Newspaper Edition” of the record still literally two-and-a-half months away. (In this, they may have approximated the modern feel and timing of the contemporary newspaper hardcopy in more ways than intended.)
And yet, I have to admit, I am just as put off by you and the oceans of your “everyone just live with it for awhile first” peers as I am by those who rushed to review it within hours of its release. Why should Radiohead be different from all other bands? Why must a solemn hush fall over the internet while we all process Thom Yorke’s mind gems for a week, two weeks at a time? I have no doubt that The King of Limbs rewards, as New York‘s Nitsuh Abebe put it over the weekend, “serious listening”; so, Fat Joe might tell you, does his newest single, or this Lykke Li stream that a bunch of my friends seem so impressed with today. Are we just giving Radiohead fans the worldwide SHHHH sign because the band’s new record sounds like something a sad schizophrenic made while huddling in a closet? Or is it that people made up their minds about this band being their eternal favorite long ago and now intend to impose that level of love and awe on the casual bystanders who may merely want to stand on the sidelines and make jokes about the whole thing sounding like whales crying?
And now of course we come to the crux of it: you suspect that I am not a fan and you are more or less correct, though I’ve never been a hater. I am in fact that caricature people have been throwing around all weekend but no one seems to actually believe in: the guy whose favorite Radiohead record is Pablo Honey, full stop, no apologies, though the particularly memorable acid trip I had while listening to it in the ’90s may have unduly informed this opinion. But look, the only thing more uninteresting than praising King of Limbs to the sky is trying to bury it. For me, the weird glimpse of a restored monoculture is the point–for once, music fans were all talking about the same thing.
Loved the Fleetwood Mac/Tusk influence on In Rainbows and was hoping for a Mirage-like response; alas, I don’t hear a “Gypsy” yet. Though “Give Up the Ghost” does remind me of that time I wanted to kill myself while having runny eggs at Johnie’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Something about that snipping-scissors sound at track’s end reminds me of a woman who cruelly patronized my mixtape affections for the better part of the ’90s.
Sorry, but whoever gets around to doing the “serious,” “proper review” for them–or for anyone else–is not going to do better. On that song, anyway. But we’ve got our roles reversed; this band means nothing to me. Care to make the case why it should?
Rob: The short answer to your question is “they matter to me, so they should matter to you,” which is the fundamental tenant of rock criticism, really. I know lots of Pablo Honey guys — they also tend to be really into Alice in Chains, FYI. Short history of my own fandom: Tried to get high school guitar instructor to teach me songs from Pablo Honey/The Bends (he was appalled by “Stop Whispering”), lost my mind to OK Computer (one of the top three records integral to my development as a human being), worked awfully hard to expand my horizons enough to be “worthy” of Kid A/Amnesiac, didn’t commune much with Hail to the Thief beyond a brief stint playing it for giggling schoolchildren, and fell surprisingly hard for In Rainbows, but mostly for I guess what you’d call the brief blips of Pablo Honey-ness — the vaguely alt-rock angst of “All I Need” particularly. So I’m with you, both on what you like and dislike. And while I do think Radiohead are Objectively Important, in that they’re the rare wildly popular band with wildly experimental instincts, capable of pushing the needle ever so slightly in terms of what the music-listening masses are willing to regard as normal and pleasurable (Kid A is enormous in that respect), I guess I have to admit that I take Radiohead personally. I am protective, I am selfish, I am defensive on both my and their behalves.
And yet your whale thing was my favorite of Friday’s insta-reactions — it’s not the sideline jokesters who rattle me so much as the superfans, genuflecting track by track, minute by minute. Can you really enjoy yourself while doing that? It just seems like a strange way to hear/process music — Radiohead’s in particular, but anybody’s, really. The Limbs deluge felt like a live presidential debate, a line graph of undecided voters’ approval ratings superimposed onscreen, tracking likability word for word, warble for warble. I’ve conditioned myself to view their records as private, spiritual, deeply internal things, even the ones I dislike and discard. Everyone’s got artists like this, I suspect — certainly Fat Joe disciples must exist, though I’m glad I don’t have to hang around with them much. I agree with you that time and distance and profound reflection are unlikely to make either The King of Limbs or the critical evaluation thereof any better. But I guess I enjoyed at least harboring the illusion that everyone takes a little time to dwell on something, live with it, before passing what the Internet misinterprets as final judgment on it. It’s the Consumer Guide thing, I guess, a lack of immediate concern with timeliness: You know when you know what you think, and you wait until you know before you say it, and often that doesn’t take very long, but it’s never instant. Or maybe it is, and maybe it always was, and maybe that’s not such an awful thing.
But I continue to think it’s funny that Limbs is already regarded as old news, right now, talking about it on the Tuesday after the long weekend of the Friday on which everyone first heard it. Records don’t linger in either the sales charts or the national consciousness they way they used to — unless, of course, you’re Nicki Minaj.
Zach: It’s now beyond a truism that great artists beget great criticism–Kanye, Arcade Fire, and M.I.A. being three of the more widely touted examples from last year that spring to mind–and you could probably make the same case here again, though I have to say that it’s kind of remarkable the degree to which everyone (even you, my friend) weirdly starts talking like a fanboy when writing about Radiohead. They really stand on people’s critical nerve until it shorts out and cries out for mercy, don’t they?
That said, the smartest thing about the band’s smart business model–as per this spot-on piece, they leaked their own record, gave people an easy, Radiohead-owned way of buying it, and subsequently clobbered nearly every form of social media in the resulting fan hustle to cough up the nine dollars it was gonna take to hear the LP right now–is that it’s actually designed to incite the real-time process you so decry. Like Kanye, who employed G.O.O.D. Fridays and an obliteratingly complete social media presence to deliver My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy into a veritable maelstrom of hype and anticipation, Radiohead have essentially taken the whole record release timeline back from an industry that has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have no idea what the fuck it’s doing. By cutting out acres of middlemen–from executives looking for a hit to critics looking for an advance listening copy, from iTunes to Best Buy, from Mediafire to Rapidshare–Radiohead did what every self respecting band today should do: use readily available technology to deal directly with the people who might be truly, genuinely interested in their music. (This sounds wonky, but it’s not–big bands like Radiohead should be doing this because they can, and smaller bands should be doing it because at this point, what label deal, and accompanying label dinosaur marketing tactics, are really going to help them?)
Which is why, though Friday’s Twitter blizzard and the avalanche of first-take reviews that followed were patently ridiculous, I wasn’t mad–there’s something redemptive about All of Us Going Through This Together. Even if–to these ears–King of Limbs still sounds like the keening lament of a freshman robot who just got dumped by his high school sweetheart and is crying it off in a dorm room full of old Fela Kuti records, all the while trying to drown out the noise of his more confident human roommate having sex with dubstep out in the common room.