There comes a time in every music blog where the impending Radiohead article breaks loose from the chains and makes itself known. Among hundreds of other expositions that detail the band’s mastery, I assure you this piece is no more worthy than the poetry of a 10th grader who just listened to Kid A for the first time.
Oh the merciless Radiohead phase. It strikes when your eyes are closed and has a bad habit of lingering for a lifetime.
It comes around to afflict almost everyone that habitually listens to music, and there’s something to be said about that in particular: they’re a group of artists that have made anguish very popular. For over two decades Radiohead has been extracting every last possible ounce of heartache and hopelessness so professionally, it’s hard to call them overrated. Even though I believe they very much are.
It took me a while to get into them. After a few years of dabbling, my attention was thoroughly caught watching their performance with the USC marching band when In Rainbows was coming out in 2009. I recall Gweneth Paltrow, or someone, introducing the band with high praise:
“This next group begins their upcoming song with the lyrics:
‘How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?’
When in reality they can do no wrong.”
It didn’t occur to my 16-year-old self that lyrics we’re very significant in a song when only seconds later Thom Yorke is spitting that line so perfectly between, literally, an armada of percussive elements, dancing and twitching with his microphone. I was gripped.
Cue an innocent google search later that night, the internet graced me with Radiohead’s 2003 Glastonbury set wherein the band opened with “There There,” entailing Jonny and Ed to bang war drums over a sick Yorke-ish lullaby.
“Just cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there”
2009 was an interesting year for me. It’s when I became addicted to listening to music. It’s when I started playing drums more seriously and began writing horrible lyrics to horrible melodies. Radiohead was integral in this period, and I had the awesome opportunity to see their concert last week in Santa Barbara.
And it was okay. They’re definitely getting old, and somewhat lazy, and stubbornly quiet, but it was fun. There’s something to be said about a band that’s still releasing solid content and touring globally after 30 years, but this seems to come with a bunch of asterisks. How willing you are to accept these asterisks may edict your enjoyment of a Radiohead concert in 2017.
We keep pretending they're invulnerable. If this weekend’s Coachella set proved anything, it’s that Radiohead needs an oil change. The syrupy slow nature of their last two studio albums feels like they're trying too hard to convey simple emotions. Yorke once pieced together ferocious, sustained banshee wails without giving up so quickly. Idioteque used to grow into this manic, cryptic, EDM meteor strike during its drop: at their latest concert, it's like getting hit in the face with a pool noodle (at 1:45).
As fantastic as A Moon Shaped Pool was, its sister record The King of Limbs is basically Radiohead overdosed on opioids, laying on the couch, lamenting itself. It sounds too much like a solo record for my taste and I very much agree with Fantano’s placement on his Best of Radiohead Albums video essay. The group is deeply rooted in a comfortable place right now. To some extent, they deserve to be. They’ve been at this for so long that, perhaps, yeah, maybe they’re allowed to be lazy. In turn I’m allowed to complain about that.
We need another Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows period. A renaissance of sonically unparalleled albums that remind the world what Radiohead is capable of before throwing in the towel. Remind people you still have a “Myxomatosis” up your sleeve, a demonic dance track to kidnap the listener’s minds, and throw theirbodies around the delicious, screwed up drum and bass.
Something like “Reckoner” perhaps; Selway's drums glisten like a centerpiece chandelier towering over a ghastly ballroom, the echoes of which persistently haunt my thoughts:
“You are not to blame for bittersweet distractors,
Dare not speak its name, dedicated to all human beings”
Like I said, A Moon Shaped Pool lived up to expectations and then some. “Glass Eyes” is gorgeous, “Present Tense” might be their best acoustic cut since “Gagging Order” and “True Love Waits” continues to destroy the aspirations of anyone who believes in the four-letter word. But how long do you think the band can keep going before they run out of Ambien?
I digress. Despite this tirade, Santa Barbara received a powerful version of their current touring show. Radiohead's musicianship is still out of this world, and the group played a massive 25 song set that seemed to deliberately omit radio hits. The crowd was more than satisfied.
They’ve been opening with the same three songs on this current tour: “Daydreaming,” “Desert Island Disk,” and “Ful Stop.” A Moon Shaped suite per say, of their current embarkment. It sets the tone and implores people to shut the hell up during the softer tracks. After that it was anyone’s guess, and the band ensued with an OK Computer classic: “Climbing up the Walls,” lacking Yorke’s bloodthirsty scream at the end unfortunately. That one though, that was just wishful thinking really.
The band obliterated a rendition of “The National Anthem.” That bass riff could get rocks to start grooving if you played it passionately enough, and Greenwood was on another level. He kept the rhythm spilling over into “All I Need,” which blossomed into this crazy piano climax that nearly had my friend in tears. Shout out to Quent, dude is enamored by that song.
To everyone’s surprise, “Like Spinning Plates” was next. It's baffling why the piano version isn't on Amnesiac but I suppose makes for a live treat. The light arpeggios tessellated under Yorke’s breath and brought the crowd to life by sewing their mouths shut. Personally "Plates” live is my favorite Radiohead track, bar none. My evening was made then and there.
However, my favorite moment of the night was easily “Myxomatosis." At the end, where the lyrics repeat:
“I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive”
Yorke went off the deep end. He started ranting, jerking sporadically, building up authority to interrogate the audience:
“Why do I feel, I feel so… fucking empty!?”
The crowd screamed, and before turning away his wicked smile was swept off to form a blank stare. Yorke put the microphone back up to his lips and counted: “one, two, three, four – ” into abrupt silence.
I was laughing uncontrollably and hugging Quent so hard, I didn’t believe it. I still can’t honestly, it was such an evocative way to end the hardest performance the group had in them that night.
But of course, in a turn of events, Yorke was getting way too liberal with his loop pedal. The outro to “Everything in its Right Place” was plagued with annoying vocal shrills that he could only pretend was intended for so long. I’m admittedly not a big fan of "Everything..." in the first place, and the way it concluded failed to sell it. The crowd shared this sentiment. Most people looked around at each other as if this was supposed to happen.
And was it? Going back to how stuck in the comfort zone Radiohead seem to be, I doubt Yorke even bothered to mind his blunder.
Be that as it may, the band ended with a bombastic double encore set comprised of “Lotus Flower,” “Planet Telex,” “Give up the Ghost,” and the penultimate “Let Down” whose outro was just as compelling as the studio version. It was a lovely change of pace from previous tours where they'd often conclude with one of “Street Spirit” or “Karma Police." If 5,000 people learned anything that night it’s that “Bodysnatchers” is how you close a friggin’ concert. The slick groove calls back to the OK Computer days (see: “Electioneering”) and sets off pulses in the crowd in tandem with the song's progression.
Honestly, "Bodysnatchers" and “Myxomatosis” felt like the only tracks that didn’t exhume the acoustic vibe. In reality, Radiohead is acoustic now. They have found a way to string up a synthesizer with elixirs and limit the output to -20db. It was a quiet concert in celebration of a quiet album. All the bitterness, at one point expressed by hatred, is now exclusively melancholic. They’d rather sulk than shock.
The concert ended, as most do, and I can wholeheartedly say it left a good ring in my ears. Consider this: Santa Barbara received a more thorough setlist than Coachella, and had no audio issues whatsoever. Elijah Wood was there too, for whatever that’s worth.
The fact remains though, the energy is not as tangible. I know I’m not the only one on this rickety boat. Whatever Radiohead do next, I’ll have my ear out for it, of course, but things have changed. And not in the rose-tinted I-miss-the-old-Kanye kind of way.
It feels as if you unconditionally put a band on a pedestal after 20 years, they’re not going to prioritize excellence.
But then again, if you unconditionally put a band on a pedestal for 20 years, you’re going to walk away satisfied from a show no matter how it goes.
Audrin Baghaie is the music editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLoboMusic