Tuesday, May 13, 2014
BRITPOP DISSECTED #5 - Oasis versus Radiohead
thinkpiece pegged around Kid A
by Simon Reynolds
What went wrong with British rock? Surveying the current panorama of mediocrity, it's hard to recall a more barren time. The last four years output of UK guitar-based music makes the early Seventies--that fabled hiatus of stalled stagnation between Sixties supernova and punk renewal--seem like a period of staggering abundance and diversity. (Which it actually was, if you think about it: the official rock history gets it wrong, as it so often does).
What happened to the culture that produced bands like Roxy Music, Joy Division, The Fall, the Banshees, the Specials, Associates, Human League, the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine,(and this to-name-just-a-few litany includes neither obvious Mythic Greats nor the myriad mavericks that brighten the corners of Brit-rock's pantheon)? Bands who each created their own aesthetic universes and singular pop languages. Now steel yourself and scrutinise the standard-bearers of recent years: Gomez with their amiable pastiches of bygone Americana; Manic Street Preachers, the People's Choice after years of dogged slog, peddling overwroughtly arranged New Wave melodrama queerly redolent of the Boomtown Rats or Pink Floyd circa The Wall; Catatonia, Stereophonics, Gay Dad, and other inkie cover faves offering what apparently passes for star quality, singing, and songcraft in this blighted isle. The sense of doldrum, of living through undistinguished times, is completed by the steady drizzle of solo albums and post-breakup projects from the debris of Madchester and Britpop--Butler, Squire, Brown, Coxon, Ashcroft.
Why does British rock continue to come up empty? Obviously, Britpop shoulders much blame---for its nostalgic jingoism and implicitly racist flight from contemporary multiculture; for the way it sanctioned derivativeness, and grave-robbing necrophilia; for its anorexic, anachronistic fetish for the snappy three minute ditty (as if the 7-inch single was still the culture's prime format). Most pernicious of all is the damage done to the ideal of independent music by Britpop's Make It Big At All Costs ethos, which made the pursuit of innovation for its own sake unfashionable, even faintly ludicrous.
If the Stone Roses started this tendency (citing only the most obvious influences, like the Beatles, as mark of their ambition and self-regard) and the Manics turned it into ideology (so that having obscure influences or experimental impulses became the sign of defeatism/elitism), it was Oasis who made it orthodoxy. Their sole raison d'etre was to be Big, to create a sense of Size that we could all bask in. And so empty boasts about seeing no reason why this band shouldn't be as big as the Beatles became compulsory for the kind of bands that exist to fill up one page features in the weekly music papers. Since major labels alone have the clout to make bands that big, the result was a massive withdrawal of energy and interest from the independent sector. Look at the indie charts now, and you'll find a motley coalition of drum 'n' bass and techno records, death metal albums and other micro-genre niche-markets, and pop stars who happen to go through independent distribution. The kind of diverse but unified independent music culture that in 1988 could sustain an A.R. Kane album at Number One for four weeks doesn't exist anymore.
For most of the Nineties, the ferment of post-rave music made the mounting failure of Britrock easy to ignore. So why not just dispense with rock and be done with it? Because dance has its own downside---what you might call "all trousers, no mouth". The problem with funktional ravefloor fodder and Wire-magazine type abstraction alike is that it is so sheerly sonic, about the materiality of rhythm and texture - and nothing else. Whereas the genius of British pop has always been the way that sonix and discourse, music and ideas about music, have meshed and cross-catalyzed each other.
It's not that dance music is meaningless. It can even "say" stuff about the world outside the club's walls, through vocal samples, rhythmic tension, bass pressure, atmospherics. But the feelings dance music communicates tend to come in primary colors, without shading or ambivalence. Mostly, it has the vicarious quality of the drug experiences it's generally designed to enhance: blasts of euphoria, impersonal forcefields of energy that you can plug into. It can be hard to connect the weekend's sensation-rides and artificial highs with everyday life. Which is why the late Nineties saw lots of people who'd been through the rave adventure suddenly feeling stranded in an emotional void. I really noticed it in 1997: friends hitherto exclusively of the electronic persuasion were suddenly listening to albums by bands like the Verve and Spiritualized.
Above all, they were listening to OK Computer. That album had the ravishing textural splendor required to seduce ears used to electronica's lavish sonic palette, but it also contained the complicated emotions, spiritual nourishment, and solace that rock at its best has always provided.
In a sense, dance music has been Britpop's accomplice, its partner in crime--together they have created a fatal split in British pop culture, separating musical innovation from all the other stuff that the UK has always excelled at (stylization, attitude, arty pretentiousness) and without which, music is "just" music. A great British rock record in the Y2K would have to fuse the severed halves, reconnect sound and significance, get the balance right between mouth and trousers. A great, fully contemporary rock record would have to rival the vivid colors, spatial weirdness and rhythmic compulsion routinely available in the realm of electronic music, but combine them with the kind of interiority and potential for individualized response that surface-and-sensation oriented, collective-high-inducing dance rarely reaches.
Kid A is such a record. On "Everything In Its Right Place," the lead vocal is just one strand in a shimmering tapestry of multitracked and treated Thom Yorke voice-goo, whose pulse-riffs and rippling patterns simultaneously recall Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom and contemporary avant-electronica outfits like Curd Duca. On "Kid A", a drastically processed and illegible Yorke vocal nestles amid a honeycomb of tweeting 'n' cooing space-critters and enchanting music-box critters--again, the track would be right at home in the world of "glitch techno" labels like Mille Plateaux or Mego. The jacknifing two-step beat that powers "Idioteque" explicitly nods towards contemporary dance, but leeches the joy out a la PiL's "Memories" or "Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" --call it Death Garage. At the opposite extreme, the beat-less "Treefingers"--a miasma of glistening vapors and twinkling haze--could be an eerie dronescape from Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol II or Eno's On Land. Now you too can own your own miniature of eternity.
Elsewhere on the album, the coordinates are less electronica and more the remotest extremities of the rock tradition. All wincing and waning atmospherics, "How To Disappear Completely" is the missing link between Scott Walker's desolate orchestral grandeur and the swoonily amorphous ballads on My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything. The grind-and-surge bass-riff, cymbal-splashy motorik drums, and asteroid-belt-debris guitars of "The National Anthem" initially recall Faust or Loop at their most kosmische, until the freeblowing entrance of Art Ensemble of Chicago style horns takes the song to another outerzone altogether. "Optimistic" combines the noble pure-rock drive of the Bunnymen circa Heaven Up Here with the gnarly, swarf-spitting graunch of Gang of Four. "In Limbo" would be Kid A's most old-fashioned sounding song (imagine a fey fatalistic castaway from Eno's solo albums trapped in the treadmill churn of Led Zep "Four Sticks") if not for its dazzling sound: a shimmer-swirl of dense overdubs, like the song's swathed in a cloud of hummingbirds.
Kid A's sound is astounding throughout: warm, smudgy, the instruments seeming to bleed-through and mingle with each other uncannily. Colin Greenwood's bass is a particularly powerful presence, often seeming to throb from inside your own body, hip hop-style. On "Morning Bell," it's like the rest of the music is the outer crust or husk of the monstrously swollen but tender bass-pulse.
Revealing fact: most Radiohead websites provide "guitar tabs" so that fans can imitate the three guitarists's every last fret fingering, chord progression, and tone-bend. Something tells me there won't be too many tabs transcribed from Kid A, though. (Tabs swallowed, Christ yeah!) The use of effects like sustain and delay, in tandem with the signal-processing and disorientating spatialisation potential of the mixing desk, is frequently so drastic that the guitars function as texture-generators rather than riff-machines. They're just another means of sound-synthesis. Indeed, it's often impossible to tell where a sound originated--it could be from guitars, or keyboards/synths, or orchestral/acoustic instruments, or from digital effects/ samples/mixing board malarkey.
Kid A is the return-with-a-vengeance of a phenomenon that had seemingly petered out: post-rock. This highly contested genre dates back to 1993-94, when various smart operators began to notice the glaring and ever-widening gap in sonic vividness between guitar-based music and "sampladelia" (the whole area of digital music that encompasses dance, atmospheric electronica, and hip hop). The result was a loosely connected semi-movement of artists determined to close the innovation gap, which I had the temerity to christen "post-rock". At its utmost, post-rock delivered an aggregation of psychedelias: the original psychedelic cosmonauts (especially the Krautrock contingent), the Jamaican psychedelia of dub, the neo-psych resurrection of the late Eighties (Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, MBV, etc), the digital psychedelia of Nineties electronic dance. What all these phases had in common was their partial or total abandonment of live performance as the model for recording: the willingness for music to be unrealistic, anti-naturalistic, a studio-spun figment.
Despite its early promise, though, the reality of post-rock rarely lived up to the dream. Too much post-rock failed to supply what people get from trad rock (the singer's charisma/neurosis, big riffs, something to look at on stage, tunes you can hum in the bath, the whole apparatus of identification and catharsis), without ever really rivaling what full-on dance offers either (groove power, surrogate drug-sensations, the rush). What you got was mood music---not necessarily emotionless, but tending to elicit admiration rather than involvement. I always thought post-rock would languish on the hipster margins until an Established Band took on its ideas--- a REM, Pearl Jam, U2 (who came close, and nearly whittled away their superstardom in the process). Now Radiohead have embraced post-rock (if not the concept, then certainly its techniques and its intent) but brilliantly merged it with all that indispensable trad-rock stuff like Emotion and Meaning.
Kid A is the kind of record that makes you want to curl up in a foetal ball inside your headphones, immerse yourself utterly---not just to catch all the loving sonic details, but because it's a record for emotional wallowing. Yorke may resent the hack stereotype of himself as "tortured artist", but his words and delivery do little to resist it. The song-moods run the gamut of dismal D-words: despondency, dis-assocation, dejection, discomfort, and (on the Floyd/Animals-redolent "Optimistic") broader cultural themes of decline and de-evolution. Ian McCulloch hyped his first solo album back in 1989 by saying that it was time for "some bleak" (the context being Madchester's day-glo positivity). Against a similar backdrop of vacant boom-time optimism, Radiohead bring the bleak in a thousand shades of lustrous grey. What's striking about Kid A is how perfectly the colors of Yorke-as-instrument fit with the band's palette. Sometimes he gets a little help from technology--effects lend a wincing toothache edge to his voice on the solar wind howl of "The National Anthem", while on "Everything In Its Right Place" and "Kid A", Yorke offers himself up as raw material to be slice'n'diced, played backwards. On "In Limbo", the chorus (either "in a fantasy" or "your inner fancy": diction is deliberately imprecise throughout, adding to the sense of Yorke as an ensemble player rather than frontman) crumbles and disappears into the band's wall of sound.
You can learn a lot about bands through their fans: one of the top Radiohead websites has a section called Song Interpretations, where fans email in their own private and widely divergent readings of lyrics that are either opaque or so indistinctly enunciated they enter 'Scuse-Me-While-I-Kiss-This-Guy territory. As with any classic rock band, Radiohead's music musters the aura of gravity that puts fans into this mode---a sensation of deep-and-meaningful that's as important as any actual statements being made. Although this kind of approach can be reactionary and middlebrow in that perennial sixth form/undergraduate/music-paper-reader way, it has a certain oppositional value at this precise moment because it is runs against the grain of the pop culture--teenpop's ascendance, dance at its most complacent and non-utopian (trance, garage, R&B, all basically accept reality as it is). Radiohead's reinvocation of art rock seriousness, at a time of compulsory triviality and pseudo-camp cynicism, is a reminder that people once believed music could change minds, have profound, life-shaking impact.
This seriousness--the earnestness of being important--is one reason why the Pink Floyd comparison dogs Radiohead, although Joy Division would be just as appropriate. Kid A is the kind of record that would have come out on Harvest or Virgin in the early Seventies, on Factory or 4AD in the early Eighties. Today, if this was an unknown band's debut, you'd have to say Domino or Kranky. (Often the record sounds like lo-fi on a Dark Side of the Moon budget, lo-fi for audiophiles). Kid A is also an album in the bygone sense of the word. The immaculate aesthetic logic of the track sequencing (something of an obsession for Radiohead) lends Kid A the sort of shape and trajectory that lingers in your mind. Rather than reprogramming the CD into micro-albums of favorite bits, people will want to play and replay it in its entirety. Smart, too, of Radiohead to resist the temptation to release a double or even use the CD's full capacity, and instead go for a 50 minute duration just a little longer than the classic vinyl elpee.
How groundbreaking is Kid A really? Committed margin-walkers will argue that if you like the title track, you'll find more wildly warped and deranging stuff on tiny glitch-techno labels out of Cologne, or claim that freaks in Japan or New Zealand are unleashing more out-there space-rock jams than 'The National Anthem'. They might be right (I couldn't tell you). But the fact is, in pop music, context is everything. It matters that this is Radiohead, who didn't have to go out on such a limb, but did. Radiohead are shoving all this strangeness, hitherto the preserve of hipster snobs, down the earholes of the Q readership--not exactly a vanguard of listeners. And the fact that the band's slightly middlebrow following will, out of sheer loyalty, learn to love it, is exciting. (On that subject, Q readers are often mocked for picking OK Computer as the Greatest Album of Time-- but why not? Better this error of passion than yet another unfurling of the conventional historical wisdom, Revolver/Astral Weeks/London Calling, blah blah, yawn yawn. And who says the Best LP Ever couldn't occur in rock's fourth decade rather than its first?
Context is everything, and it makes a mighty difference that this is an awaited record. There's a momentousness that--unjustly, inevitably--will never pertain to the next effort by Labradford or Mouse On Mars. The sense of a Major Band on a journey that is exceeding expectations recalls the giant steps made with each successive album by the Beatles, or the way that certain art-rock luminaries progressed by taking the weirdest elements of their previous record and making them the blueprint for the next (e.g. the sequence that climaxed with Talking Heads's Remain In Light), or just springboarding into a strange beyond of their own imagining (e.g. Kate Bush's The Dreaming). Radiohead could have easily, profitably, remade OK Computer. But instead they've made a record where every track sounds 1/ unlike each other, and 2/ unlike anything they've done before, yet still 1/ works as a glorious whole, and 2/ has a distinct Radiohead identity. Saviours of Britrock? Don't know about that, but Kid A is a shining example and stinging reproach to the rest of the Britrock pack for their low horizons and underachievement.