How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Radiohead

Forget whether they’re “the Last Great Rock Band.” They’re better when you stop taking them so seriously.

Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California April 14, 2012.
Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at Coachella in Indio, California, on April 14, 2012.

David McNew/Reuters

Something startling happened last week as I streamed some past Radiohead records in anticipation of the new A Moon Shaped Pool: I started enjoying them.

This was surprising because for two decades I had cultivated a deliberate near-total indifference to the works of the Last Great Rock Band, as the Oxford-area quintet is more or less officially known. It was my alternative to fighting about them, since Radiohead fans tend to be as devout and vitriolic in their faith as One Direction devotees, but stodgier and with nowhere near the overflowing side dish of sexy fun. (If there is a treasure trove of Larry Stylinson–esque Radiohead slash fiction out there about, say, the secret star-crossed incestuous love affair of the Greenwood brothers, I don’t want to … oh damn, and now I know.)

Radiohead fans are prone to claims that the group’s musicianship is so much more sophisticated than all others that they transcend all categories, or that their emotional depth is such that it makes tentacle-creatures cry on a planet 10,000 light-years away, or that their intellectual grasp is so vast that when Thom Yorke mumble-sings “You know what I mean,  you know what I mean” (as he does on the new album’s “Desert Island Disk”), he is definitely referring simultaneously to government surveillance of communications metadata, the complete history of epistemology, and the second line of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

This is mostly not the band’s fault, and Radiohead heads should feel free to deify their favorite singer as much as any Directioner or Beyhive inhabitant. But except for their early angst-rock classic single “Creep,” the music mostly left me respectful but drowsy, unable to distinguish one mushy Yorke syllable from another or remember what I’d heard a few minutes earlier. As their Britpop generational predecessors in Oasis had updated the Beatles to the 1990s with a kind of sweepingly reductive corporate efficiency, Radiohead seemed to me to do the same for the prog rock that followed (i.e., I was guilty of the same Pink Floyd comparisons as everyone else), replacing the ungainliness that could be the saving grace of the originals with a soporific degree of tastefulness and competence. The blokes of Radiohead did their job extremely well, but was the job worth doing, or was it a dutiful fulfillment of the standard white-guy-rock-band will to power?

These subjective reactions were no more independently valid than the Radiohead fans’ worship. Probably less so. At the time of records such as OK Computer and Kid A, the song-based music I personally preferred tended to be more amateurish and vulnerable, à la the bedroom-tape “lo-fi” crowd, and my experimentalism more dissonant and noisy, whether from Diamanda Galás or Autechre. Radiohead was too pretty—or at least when I wanted pretty, there were much less fussy sources in pop, folk, or country.

Given that I write criticism for a living, clearly I enjoy a raucous debate about these matters. But with Radiohead, because the fans were so adamant about their access to truth, it never seemed worth the hassle. All either side would get would be hurt feelings. In retrospect, this was because we were talking about the Last Great Rock Band. In rock, canonical proclamations were obligatory, and it often seemed that you were either in favor of virtuosity, profundity, and alienated-genius-ism or else pro–dumb-fun. I wasn’t exactly in either camp, but I’m not saying I was exempt: I didn’t think Radiohead was cool, and it was according to the late-post-punk, avant-whatsit expectations I still harbored. They fell in between zones of respect, and therefore fell short for me.

If you look at the reviews of the new album, you’ll find Radiohead discourse still bears much of that baggage. But I think the band benefits as much as everyone else does from the shake-up and expansion of musical pluralism in the new century, as the music world has fractured and the channels of conversation have multiplied. Today “greatness” isn’t really the automatic concern, not without including “great for what—great for whom?” The kinds of arguments people have now about Future or Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or One Direction include their own heaps of hyperbole and shibboleths, but they’re unable to rest on any incontrovertible assumptions. The standards and values are open and mobile, and have to be reconstructed and readjusted almost every time we speak about them. That makes it a more exciting time to be a music fan than in the twilight years of rock’s pseudo-dominance (itself a fiction, since rock dominance was never remotely universal). A part of me misses the partisanship that made these fan fights so crucial to passions of aesthetic identity, but I don’t miss how knee-jerk and blinkered the disputes were.

Radiohead returns as a jurassic band, in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y. Yet that also makes it a more fun time to be listening to Radiohead, because I’m able to jettison any sense that what’s at stake is an implicit claim to “the way forward”—just as I wouldn’t subject any given bluegrass album to that test, for example, no matter how good it was. There isn’t a “forward” in rock anymore, and we’re better off without it, as with any progress myths about history, economics, or making America “great” “again.” And so, listening to Radiohead for the first time in five or six years, most of OK Computer now sounds catchier and more dynamic than I remembered, Kid A is refreshing in a way that doesn’t need to be ranked for electronic innovation against the Warp Records catalog, and In Rainbows feels like perfect Sunday-morning breakfast music. And I mean nothing diminishing by that.

Yorke’s vocals trail through those atmospherics most pleasantly if I don’t attempt to decipher the lyrics, which, as objectively as I can say it, are not the grand statements their most eager analysts lather them up to be. In Alex Ross’ excellent 2001 profile of the band in the New Yorker, the drummer Phil Selway proclaimed, “What we do is pure escapism,” and it makes me appreciate the band much more if I don’t forget it. Listening to Radiohead as a music-making band rather than a meaning-making engine, they sound pretty damn good.

What’s appealing about the title A Moon Shaped Pool is that of course the moon as we perceive it has no fixed shape (and neither has water)—in some ways, then, aptly for me, it is a joke about preconceptions. I can’t assess the record the way long-standing fans would, but I’m most seduced by the ornamentations and effects supplied by the London Contemporary Orchestra in collaboration with guitarist Jonny Greenwood, whose musical scores have brought so much to the recent films of Paul Thomas Anderson. While the songs lean heavily toward the slow and the static, it’s in the accretion of details that the pleasures lie, as announced by the col-legno string attack in opening track “Burn the Witch” (which sounds distinctly like the work of Canadian singer-violinist Owen Pallett) and continued by the way that the second half of “Daydreaming” unexpectedly becomes a claustrophobic chamber piece, or by how the treated keyboards and acoustic cellos and violins in “Glass Eyes” slip past each other like shifting continental plates charted by György Ligeti.

Nearly as imaginative are the band’s own textures, their eerie squeals and equipment-threatening electric shudders, filigrees, and la-di-da’s—I love the air-compressor sighs alternating with distressed organ tones that open “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” (Although, given the relative letdown of the subsequent tune, I also chuckled at former Slate music critic Jody Rosen’s Facebook joke that the song title captures “the full extent of Thom Yorke’s wit/imagination, conveniently distilled.”) As well, in acoustic-guitar–led songs like “Desert Island Disk,” “The Numbers,” and “Present Tense”—which also benefits from a bossa-nova backbeat and haunting choral vocals—there’s a tone reminiscent of early 1970s English folk-rock, a very welcome addition to the palette for any fanciers of Fairport Convention or Veedon Fleece–period Van Morrison.

All this matters far more than Yorke’s vague thematics about being a troubled man in troubled times. “The Numbers” (formerly called “Silent Spring”) is fine as a climate change protest song. But it’s thin, compared for example with Anohni’s recent album Hopelessness, where much more searing thoughts about the global condition are sounded by a singer whose high tones are as gauzy and angelic as Yorke’s but with a much more penetrating sting. And I’m aware “True Love Waits” has been a concert favorite since the mid-1990s, but the revision here is a draggy closer compared with the live versions you can hear on YouTube—the minimalist piano is spine-tingling, but it disperses what was once one of Yorke’s hookier tunes into another batch of disparate floaty particles.

Overall, though, A Moon Shaped Pool is expertly gorgeous and moody, and with what seems like a lighter hand than sometimes in the past. Or that could just be me, being glad not to feel like a grouch about Radiohead any more. Put them on. I’ll nod along. And even if I nod off instead, it will be with a smile.