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16th May 2016

Fish Out Of Water: Radiohead Relay

Pierre Flasse journeys out of his depth through Radiohead’s past discography

So here I am, a fish out of water, ready to tackle the nostalgia, love and hype that is Radiohead. My peers leap in surprise when I mention I’ve only listened to one song on an old Top Gear driving album, and to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it. Join me on this eight-album odyssey, ending just before their latest, for the full, unaltered first impressions.

Pablo Honey (1993) kicks off with ‘You’ and ‘Creep’. First impression, is they don’t really have a different sound. Their sound seems “generic rock band”, but the variation comes from the composition and songwriting, not the sound. Especially visible in ‘Creep’, there is a loathing to be admired from Yorke’s vocals, and the lyrics protrude with poetry. As the album continues, I come to recognise their early sound, and can see why it took off, they’re the perfect festival band to whine along with in the warm dusk. However, it is really one sound across the album; there’s nothing ground-breaking here.

The Bends (1995) is a slightly different fish to fry. Each riff is more confident, more energetic and more positive, but the vocals seem weaker compared to the previous album. Actually, they’re not weaker, they’re just less powerful as they hit you. ‘High and Dry’ is a breath of fresh air in the album, drawing on the more lyrical and personal nature of the previous album. Despite this, a song will occasionally creep out of the mix that is completely original and inspired, and a completely different sound, in this case ‘Just’ and ‘My Iron Lung’. I’m getting near the hype, not quite there.

We’ve arrived at OK Computer (1997), known for its critical acclaim, and it’s fair to say I’m looking forward to something excellent. I’m thrown into a different world that I just wasn’t expecting. It’s confident where The Bends wasn’t, and grown from what Pablo Honey was attempting to do—it’s an entirely new sound, separate from the previous albums but more importantly from the rest of the genre. I got lost in the world of the ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, attention arrested by ‘Karma Police’, and was completely taken aback by the subtlety of ‘No Surprise’. I’m in the hype.

The next question is if they can follow with an album maintaining the excitement and skill put forward by OK Computer. Kid A (2000) begins with the track ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, aptly named, as this record clicks everything into place. This record is vastly more experimental with its vocoder-esque ‘Kid A’ lulling you into a background or the ‘National Anthem’ which follows as a windy-synth big band experience. ‘How To Disappear Completely’ and ‘In Limbo’ continues and indulges in the surreal noise atmosphere. I must say this is my favourite album yet.

Amnesia (2001) pushes the experimentation further than any of the previous albums. Standalone, I don’t feel it would have worked, but with the preceding discography, it flows beautifully. ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box’ is a strong opener, following the experimental sound environment of the previous albums. ‘I Might Be Wrong’ lulls me into some kind of stupor, which I then get thrown out of by the lounge-jazz extraordinaire ‘Dollars & Cents’.

My experience is somewhat similar of Hail To The Thief (2003) which is another impressive creative masterpiece. I see 2000 – 2003 as their most creative years; this is where you can see Radiohead settled in their own noise and they know exactly what to deliver and how to deliver it. They hit their stride in an expertly crafted wall of texture that won’t relent. ‘Sit Down. Stand Up’ and ‘There, There’ are both favourites for me here, as the vocals throw you in and out of the bulging structure. Yet, despite my admiration for this album, I can’t help but feel there’s a loss of momentum towards the end, the riffs and vocals feeling lacklustre to comparison of previous releases.

I begin In Rainbows (2007) cautiously. The sound has energy, that can’t be argued, but for me it’s lost the attention which it so demanded before. ‘Nude’ sparks my interest as an intimate and haunting and sparse vocal number, followed later by ‘All I Need’, which has a heavy omniscience about it that I start to enjoy, before ‘Reckoner’ takes me in for a sweeping ride. ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Jigsaw’ rope me back in, fumbling around with a memory of their previous energy. This album is confusing for me, as some songs are fantastical, whilst others fall below par. I’m careful to listen for what made the reaction to this album so overwhelmingly positive, yet sadly, I fail to find it.

At last, the end of our journey is here with The King Of Limbs (2011). I’m thrown straight into a murmur of sound, very much at home amongst the Kid A noise with ‘Bloom’. Damn, I’m happy they brought this sound back. ‘Lotus Flower’ sets me free, and ‘Codex’ lulls me to rest. This album is a celebration of their subtleties juxtaposed with their experimental environment from early on, and frankly up there with my favourites.

Thank you for the journey, but what is the overall verdict? I’m not going to claim to be the biggest Radiohead fan—who would be after this almighty binge?—however, I now appreciate their style, their charisma and their damn good music. Kid A came out top for me with the beautiful experimentation of texture.

When they hit their stride, it was fucking awesome. I’m in the hype, honey.

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