Tuesday, March 29, 2011

EBDS Special Post #5: Radiohead and The Greil Marcus Effect

Author's note: Well, I *was* planning on my next post being about Tour '74, but something I read caught my fancy, and you're getting this instead. Hopefully this is of some (any) interest.

Just like I'm well aware that all of you that read this blog do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan, I'm quite certain that you all know that I, as the proprietor of this humble little blog, also do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan. Dylan bows to no one in terms of being my all-time favorite solo artist, but there remains a slot to be filled in the "favorite band" category, and I must confess that it's a two-horse race in that regard, and two boring horses to boot. One of those horses is The Beatles, a favorite band choice so predictable and boring that I'm almost bored just TYPING it, but a choice that I firmly believe stands up to scrutiny simply due to the fact that those guys wrote a hell of a lot of amazing songs. The other would be Radiohead, who I consider the current best band in the world, whose In Rainbows and OK Computer are serious candidates for my favorite album of all time, and whose newest album, The King of Limbs, was released to record stores on this very day (although it was available for about a month prior via digital download, which means that I've listened to the album plenty of times and digested it to the point where I think I can write with some semblance of lucidity about it). And it is them, in part, who I will be writing about in this post.

Now, The King of Limbs is hardly what I would call a bad album. I would say that the first half is definitely not as good as the second half, that there are many quietly beautiful moments but nothing approaching the harmonies of "Paranoid Android" or the end of "Reckoner" when the strings really kick in something fierce, that the Burial/Flying Lotus homages lend the album a strange atmosphere, like we're listening to a totally different band with Thom Yorke at the helm (the cut-up and edited drum patterns, IMO very unlike the normal measured rhythmic genius of Phil Selway, hammer this home), and that "Lotus Flower" and "Codex" both hold rightful places in the Radiohead Pantheon. I would also say that the album represents, at best, something of a lateral move, in that we'd EXPECT them to really be into Four Tet and that the skittering house beats that show up at times don't have the same resonance as the electronic flourishes of Kid A a decade earlier. Again, hardly a bad album, possibly even a very good one, but that's about as far I'd go; more Desire than Blonde on Blonde.

An article I read, oh, about an hour or so ago on the very good music website Stereogum posits that this might be the album which finally puts a dent in the heretofore unshakable critical reputation of Radiohead (which I'd argue has been shaken a few times previous, but whatever). After all, In Rainbows had both the fantastic "pay what you want" story AND gorgeous, guitar-driven (very important, that) music, whereas this album has a weird newspaper being released concurrently with music that, well, is not quite as good as In Rainbows, or at least as immediate in an emotional sense. Judging by reviews on Metacritic, comments on message boards and music sites, and even plain old word of mouth, this might very well be the most divisive album the group's released. And the article above posits that an album like this, one that could be seen as a lateral move at best from a group that's always been considered as forward-thinking as any that's ever existed (which is funny, since their music is so often steeped in what's going on at that time in the music worlds they inhabit and listen to), might be the one where critics finally stop their "well, ain't this great" attitude towards Radiohead, where fans stop blindly accepting their every move as works of genius, and where, just maybe, the emperor might have no clothes.

Does any of this sound a little bit familiar?

If I have any particular issue with the article I've linked to, it would be this - "there's a problem?" And it was with that particular thought, the consideration of what it is that make people stress out so much about what a band chooses to put out (short of a pure gouging of the audience like, I dunno, the artist breathing heavily, any album of new music should generally be considered due diligence on the part of said artist - their fulfilling of both social and record company contracts, as it were) and how it relates to All of Us, that I remembered this. Yes, I am shameless enough to think about articles I've written in the past. But I feel that, in this particular instance, the callback to my own work is warranted. As you may yourself remember, or at least read if you click on the link, I gave Marcus et. al. some stick about what I considered their own selfishness in suggesting that, in any way/shape/form, Dylan belonged to them. That's not to suggest that Dylan's music, in some ways, don't belong to us - after all, he released them into the world, and our collective web of memories and experiences relating to his music gives us at least some license to claim his songs as part of ourselves (what, after all, is this blog if not my version of that?). But the idea that Dylan OWES us anything, or that he needs to keep recording music at all, or (most importantly) that Dylan must continue to define the zeitgeist the way he once had (totally by accident, of course) is painfully naive and absurd - even somebody as admittedly naive as myself knows that.

This, to me, is ultimately the most troubling notion behind the relationship a band has with its fans - the idea that the band, really, owes us anything. Sure, we pay them our hard-earned money, but we always receive something in return - a CD of their music, a ticket to see them perform, a t-shirt, whatever (and, of course, sometimes, we get the music without paying them - although I DID pay $3.00 for In Rainbows on its initial release, so ha!), so we can't really say that we as fans have been done dirt. And as for the music the band chooses to record and release - well, that, of course, is also totally their right and their own prerogative. If they want to record a prog rock opera, or a hyphy album, or their own version of The Basement Tapes, then what exactly is the reason that they should not? Because they recorded The Bends? Please. If you want to call out critics for any perceived complacency in reviewing a band that has delivered for over a decade, you are also within your right. But goodwill is a very powerful thing, and anybody that doubts that need only look at the diminishing returns of Robert De Niro's acting career. We are a forgiving people, so long as the people we're forgiving have already done good by us.

And, inevitably, I find myself thinking of Dylan again, and the position he has occupied for nearly his entire career. Much like Radiohead, who are not so much a band as many separate bands (the one that recorded "High and Dry", the one that recorded "Bloom", the one that recorded "No Surprises", etc., etc.), Bob Dylan is a man that has worn many faces, some of them the faces of incredible music, some of them the faces of horrid music. But we must remember, at the end of the day, that whatever face Radiohead or Bob Dylan chooses to wear is totally at the discretion of Radiohead or Bob Dylan. And if that's not the face you want them to wear...well, it's not a choice you get to make, nor should it be. I'll be there for Radiohead's next album, as expectant as I was for the last, and I will be there for Dylan's next album as well. And if Dylan chooses to release a hyphy album, I imagine we'll all love him just the same. I hope.

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Pulp Revolution said...

Well written. Sometimes we, the listener, just aren't ready to hear what the artist has to say. I consider myself to be a avid Bob Dylan fan with a large selection of recordings and yet there are still records that I don't own so that when the time comes that I need new Dylan music I can still find it. I am also a fan of Radiohead, but right now I'm not in a Radiohead mood. So, I'm waiting on King of Limbs with the knowledge that when I'm ready, it'll be there.

schwartzonthegrid said...

Great article. If you want to hear bob sing something other that 'like a rolling stone' on the radio- try kpig! heard some great live cuts, and even not so great deep tracks from the 70's albums on here lately. worth a try!


Meezy said...

Dude, write some more!

Anonymous said...

C'mon now! Can't wait for you to get stuck into Blood on the Tracks! Great stuff so far!

Anonymous said...

Miss your posts. Hope you'll get back at your writing soon.

Anonymous said...

Seriously man...I've been blogging about Dylan and Radiohead. It's crazy you just mentioned the same two in your blog.

Anonymous said...

We miss you. Come back soon.

Bob Dylan Tickets said...

That is great article and master piece of writing buddy.Me also a big fan of Bob Dylan,i have much collection of Bob Dylan,here i wanna share some of his songs


Thanks for sharing such a beautiful article

RWS said...

Why did you say listing the Beatles as your favorite group is, "boring and predictable", when one could say the same thing about Bob being your favorite solo artist. The Beatles and Bob Dylan are my favorite artists as well and can't understand why you feel the need to almost apologize for liking one of them. It's not the Beatles or Dylan's fault that in 40 plus years no one has caught up to them.

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