I guested on the Word Podcast this morning. You can listen to it via iTunes or just go here first if you like. It is the one podcast I listen to every week, without fail, as it appeals to me on every level. It is, therefore, a rare treat to take part in it, and to set the world to avuncular rights with David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, whose unbounded enthusiasm for doing just that, after all these years, is infectious. Frankly, it’s nourishing enough to listen to the old couple, let alone get to add your twopenneth. You raise your analytical and observational game in their presence. It is required. So bracing! Above is a daft picture of the three of us taken in the corridor on somebody else’s bicycle, possibly somebody off Lark Rise To Candleford.
Anyway. One of the things we discussed in the alloted hour was Radiohead’s new album The King Of Limbs. Its arrival announced last Tuesday, it “dropped” on Friday, I think, a day before it was announced to “drop”. (As David asked on last week’s podcast: why preempt it even by a few days? If you’re really circumventing the conventions of the record business, why not just release it, without any warning whatsoever?) I downloaded it on Saturday, and have listened to its fairly stingy eight tracks a number of times without judging it. I have now had it in my ears for six days, and I’m ready to say what I think of it without buckling under the pressure of the mad rush of instant reaction that has characterised its appreciation in cyberspace, and in print. Now, I love Radiohead. Without me ever thinking of them as mah favourite band, they kind of are one of mah favourite bands. I have liked them since, if not the very first notes of the first track on the Drill EP, certainly since I first saw them play to a near-deserted Astoria theatre in London, 1992, where they were the first support band on. (Their PR, the late Philip Hall, had convinced me to accompany him, and guess what, it was Creep that turned my head. I cannot find out who the main band was. Anybody know?)
I liked Pablo Honey, although its awkwardness seems less significant now. I was sent by Select to interview them, having had to do a really hard sell on them to editor Andrew Harrison, who viewed them, understandably, as just another English indie band, perhaps even grunge wannabes and as such square pegs in the effete world of Suede, St Etienne and the Auteurs. They turned out to be a lot more than that, of course. I met them in Oxford and remember fondly the thick-cut, unsliced bread which I think Colin Greenwood toasted for us, as we sat at the pine kitchen table. Off we went in a Transit van to Treforest in South Wales, where they played to a half-interested but eventually won round student crowd in the union at Glamorgan University. I interviewed Thom Yorke in the van, and we bonded over a shared past at art school. I found him smart and funny. He had that spiky peroxide hair at the time.
That was, as far as I can recall, the only time I have spent with them. I’m glad now, looking back. They had not been to America at the time, and had not been driven to the very lip of insanity by fame and fortune. I’m sure it’s a fascinating thing to meet Thom Yorke now. As it stands, I’ve spent most of their career as a fan, rather than as their priest, “sixth member” or loyal Boswell. I still think Kid A is their best album, with Hail To The Thief a close second, which seems to be a fairly unusual configuration, but there you go. Their gig at Earls Court on the Hail To The Thief tour remains one of my favourite of all-time, and that’s in an arena with fold-down plastic chairs. I was knocked out by the sheer collective industry afoot onstage, and how intricately they worked together. And Yorke is a real showman. I liked In Rainbows, although felt uneasy about not having it on my CD shelf, along with all the others. (I don’t own a physical product of it.)
The King Of Limbs is the first Radiohead album to make me feel the way I felt about REM around the time of Up and Reveal. I had gone with REM as they’d become more and more successful, and adored New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but there seemed nothing new about the albums that followed. They were fine. They were REM. They did not set my world on fire, and I longed to feel how I felt about Green, let’s say, never mind Murmur or Reckoning. Radiohead sound like Radiohead, which is no crime. Nobody else much sounds like Radiohead, after all, but as Mark pointed out in today’s podcast, the beginning of each of the eight tracks on The King Of Limbs sounds ultimately alike. I’m happy to hear a jittery refrain, and a spidery, jazz-inflected beat, and Yorke’s haunting coo, but I fear my expectations are too high for this to be enough.
There are good tracks here, like Morning Mr Magpie, Lotus Flower, Separator – tracks that the likes of The Vaccines, or Florence & The Machine, or the Cold War Kids, or the Killers can never even dream of creating – but nothing so far to knock my socks off, like There There and Myxomatosis did on the very first listen to Hail To The Thief, or Idioteque on Kid A, or Pyramid Song on Amnesiac, or Weird Fishes/Arpeggi on In Rainbows … Could it be that this is the first makeweight Radiohead album? The first stopgap? The first album they should have actually just released for free?
I will continue to listen to The King Of Limbs. That’s the difference between it – a substandard Radiohead album – and pretty much every other album I’ve listened to with great expectations over the last two years. It still has my attention. Because even a bad Radiohead album – and to date there isn’t one – would be better than most of the other albums I’ve listened to over the last two years. But on my next Tube journey I might rather listen to James Blake by James Blake. Or a shuffled playlist of old favourites. Or an old Radiohead album.
It’s a weird fish.