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June 22, 2003

you either know this or don't care.

Posted by Phil on June 22, 2003 7:12 AM

There's a new Radiohead album.

I was late to Radiohead-is-brilliant (which began with the release of OK Computer, an album I didn't like or buy for some months) and I don't get the compulsion to declare that they are or are not the salvation of rock and roll and/or Western civilization, but I do like Radiohead. A lot.

This new album seems to be too much of one thing to still be so much of the other. It's a hybrid of the distressful ambience of the preceding diptych, Kid A and Amnesiac, and the rafter-rattling angst of OK Computer and, I guess, the earlier two albums, neither of which I've given much time to. My short review of the new album is that they should choose to either levitate me or sedate me, but not try to do both, because one creates expectations of deliverance and the other forces terms of surrender, and the dissonance is not pleasurable. Deliverance becomes jarring; sedation dull and tedious. And I'm not quite ready to grant Radiohead the meta-credit of believing that setting up that particular dissonance is their intent, because then I'd have to think about not only the dissonance, but what critique might lead a bunch of young Englishmen to anticipate and provoke it.

Which brings me to my point--the reason I landed in the computer chair, two scotches up and close to midnight when I'm pledged to get up with the wee lad on the morrow--which is that I don't think Radiohead are quite as self-conscious as all that, and I don't think it's necessary to claim or prove they are to believe that they're a really good band making music that speaks to the condition of any thinking person these days.

The Clinton years were borrowed time. We all felt it, and the Republicans and their wealthy benefactors made damn sure we didn't forget it. Liberals felt like Clinton was a compromise, yet the frothing conservatives made it clear that even his mealy-mouthed version of social decency wasn't going to fly for long, and next time they wouldn't make the mistake of being less than ruthless in wresting back the levers. There's no question that the world we live in now is very different, and not just because we believe terrorists are stalking our airports and condo clubhouses. Empowered by our fear, the government is sweeping us up in currents of extremism, protectionism, and imperialism (what else would you call it?). The only thing that gives humanists any hope at all is that the conservatives (an outdated term--what are they conserving?) are in danger of overplaying their hand; that simple folk inclined to support their avowedly simple moralities but who generally wish not to be jangled may tire of their alacrity in remaking the world in the image of Joe McCarthy, J.P. Morgan, and Boss Tweed.

Radiohead makes music for those of us waiting for the simple folk to wake up: music that expresses fear for people who understand yet are powerless to confront the evil that controls their lives. Not evil as Mr. Bush defines it, but true, mundane, merciless evil--the one that even Mr. Bush's declared enemies battle, misguided though they may be. Electronica mavens who claim that Radiohead are derivative and/or amateuristic miss the point exactly. Radiohead utilizes the tools of electronic music to emphasize the alienation ordinary minds feel from the technology that dictates the rhythms of 21st-century life. But much more up-front and effective is the way they use the basic rock tools: guitar, bass, drum, voice.

After September 11, 2001, as a New Yorker of more than three years living out my last four weeks there, Radiohead (and some jazz and country blues) was about the only music I could listen to sober. It was sonically expansive, yet comfortingly claustrophobic in a time when it seemed a claustrophobic space was the only place small enough to be safe.

Claustrophobia is no longer comforting, but it's still operative. Clearly we have outgrown the place. The world is too goddamn small if men like George W. Bush can fancy they can control it, and we are stuck in steerage with people ignorant enough to approve of him trying. Media hotheads pander to our fellows' baser instincts, attempting to convince us of the reason in Mr. Bush's plans, because this is a democracy, in theory, and none of it can be undertaken without our assent--which makes it more troubling than if we were simply pawns under an open tyranny.

In theory, we have assented to all of it--"my planes, my guns, my money, my soldiers, my blood on my hands: it's all my fault!"--but I *HAVEN'T*, motherfuckers. There's a target on my head and on America and on my beloved New York City, and it's not because of anything you or I have done or will benefit from, no matter how many empty "tax relief" calories they offer up like sickly-sweet sugar-milk from the bottom of the Cheerios bowl.

And there I have to stop, for now. If you're still reading, and you like rock music, buy Radiohead's Hail to the Thief. You might dig it.