Loving Radiohead, for better or for worse: One fan's confession
The moment Radiohead announced a concert on Feb. 29 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, I booked the day off work.
This is my favorite band of all time, you see. Come Leap Day, I want nothing to stand between me and this concert — no rushed assignments at work, no last-minute fires to extinguish, no chance of being swallowed by bridge traffic on my way to Tampa. I will leave nothing to fate. I cannot miss this show.
Then I read an interview with Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien about the band’s setlist for this tour.
“Last time we went out,” he said, “it felt very much like In Rainbows plus the greatest hits. And it’s not going to be like that this time. I guess it’s going to be predominantly from this record and the last record, and then see which songs fit around that.”
Oh. I see.
“This record” is The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s latest studio album. It is not their worst album, nor is it their best. It did not resonate with me like their last album, the aforementioned In Rainbows. No, for me, The King of Limbs just ... is. I listened to it a couple of times, and then I mostly forgot all about it. It’s the first Radiohead album that meant nothing to me.
It’s a disheartening feeling, and it’s surely happened to you, too. When you love an artist, there will always be ups and downs, points high and low in how you feel about them. No artist, not even your favorite, is immune to the occasional creative misstep.
Many people love The King of Limbs. I want to love it. I really do. But is it possible to make yourself care about art that simply doesn’t speak to you? Even if it’s by your favorite artist?
I launched an experiment. Starting Feb. 1, I would listen to The King of Limbs in its entirety every day, leading up to the concert on Feb. 29. If the band wants to challenge me, I figured it was my duty as a fan to step up and be challenged. What is it about this album that I’m just not getting? Is it me? What can I do to make it better?
Call it music therapy. Me and my favorite band, facing each other on a couch in my mind, working through our rough patch together.
Art should not be a puzzle. I think most creative people would agree. If something is meant to resonate — a book, a film, a song — you should usually feel it right away. Right?
Radiohead doesn’t always work that way. Like a lot of artists, the group has tried to reinvent itself with each project. Sometimes, fans react warily. Then we listen again. And again. We let the record sit. And more often than not, we come back more enamored than ever.
“I remember being in high school when Kid A came out,” said Jesse Tabish, singer for the band Other Lives, Radiohead’s opening act on this tour. “And my first reaction was kind of a negative one. I didn’t quite grasp it yet. I didn’t get it. And it wasn’t until probably three or four more listens that I realized, Wow, this shit’s brilliant.”
So that’s it. Maybe I just need time.
Or maybe not.
“I think you’re missing a component here,” said Barbara Rhode, a Pinellas County therapist who specializes in relationship issues. “I don’t think it’s just immersing yourself. I think it would be matching it with something pleasurable. ... The more senses you can match to a new habit, the better, neurologically, it’ll stick. And the more pleasure you’ll bring to it.”
So I took The King of Limbs to Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, a setting I thought matched the album’s loose naturalistic themes (songs like Feral, Lotus Flower and Bloom; lyrics about birds, weeds and dragonflies). I took a lap beneath the swinging Spanish moss, watching turtles and gators and breathing the early spring air.
There are benefits to removing all distractions from an art-consumption experience. It’s why we read in libraries and watch movies in theaters. Still, Sawgrass Lake, while pleasant, brought no new insights about The King of Limbs.
Maybe there’s something deeper going on.
Last fall, Coldplay — another British rock band that, especially in its early years, was compared, frequently and rather unfavorably, to Radiohead — released an album called Mylo Xyloto. Unlike The King of Limbs, I loved Mylo Xyloto right from the start, and have listened to it dozens of times. In September, I drove to Atlanta to see the band live. It was, hands down, the best concert I’ve ever seen.
In a weird way, this troubled me. I’ve never felt this way about Coldplay before. Does this mean they have usurped the title of My Favorite Band? At age 32, have I crossed that point in my life where commercially friendly radio rock is now more pleasing to me than abstract noise art? Was this inevitable?
Biologically, yes. Maybe it was.
The brain is wired to respond favorably to new discoveries, Rhode said. “We now know that the same parts of the brain that light up over drugs or overeating or alcohol light up in new relationships,” said Rhode. It’s an addictive high that leads “serial monogamists” to chase new partner after new partner. (Picture that 20-something hipster in your mailroom who has a new favorite band each week.) “They go from one thing to another to another, because they want to keep replicating that rushy feeling.”
This makes sense. Coldplay’s Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall may be prodding a part of my hippocampus that Radiohead hasn’t touched in years. But loyalty to a single artist can have its benefits, too. Rhode likens it to a long-term relationship — you trade the uncertain thrills of the dating pool for the deeper pleasures of monogamy. “You still get extra oxytocin and seratonin and endorphins, even if you’ve been in a long-term relationship,” she said. “You don’t get that rush or that high, but I believe you get other chemicals and a deepened state of awareness.”
So that’s it. After 15 years of fandom, my relationship with Radiohead has become kind of like a marriage.
Each day, the play count for The King of Limbs ticked up on my iPod. I listened to it at work, in my car, on my stereo, through different sets of headphones. I set it to shuffle. I worked out to it. I fell asleep to it. By Valentine’s Day (irony alert!), listening to The King of Limbs every day had become a daily chore, a 38-minute workout I had to squeeze in between meals.
On Feb. 21, I tweeted: “Printer by my desk just made a noise that’s the same tone as the opening note of 'Lotus Flower.’ #descentintomadness”
But with every spin, the record revealed more of its subtle beauty. Every day I discovered little epiphanies: The drumbeat on Little By Little, the bass on Morning Mr. Magpie, the slinky electric guitar on Give Up The Ghost, the secretly wicked horns on Bloom. I began to learn Thom Yorke’s lyrics by heart: Little by little, by hook or by crook / I am such a tease, and you’re such a flirt.
In my mind, I was finally hearing the album how the band meant it to be heard — note by precisely chosen note, as a holy man might study the Scripture. I gained a better appreciation for what Radiohead was trying to create. I may not love The King of Limbs, but at least on a subconscious level — little by little, by hook or by crook — it was beginning to speak to me.
Or maybe that’s just the Stockholm Syndrome talking.
As the concert nears, I’m coming to terms with The King of Limbs’ place in the Radiohead canon. It is probably the best “background music” album the group has made, which is a pretty backhanded compliment, but it’s better than nothing.
But where does this leave me and Thom going forward?
I admit that it’s a little silly, at age 32, to have a “favorite” anything, much less a favorite rock ’n’ roll band. What, am I going to plaster my locker with pictures of Thom Yorke? Pray he pulls me onstage like Courteney Cox? I am, as the noted poet Young Jeezy once wrote, a grown-ass man. I haven’t the time for such trivialities.
But art is a very personal thing for anyone, no matter their age. Just browse the Internet, and you can see how obsessed people get about their favorite artists. Every new album, book or film is dissected ad nauseam and hailed as a masterpiece or decried as a betrayal of the artist’s previous work. That’s real passion. It’s legitimate love.
So it is for me with Radiohead. As trying as this phase of our relationship has been, I still love the rest of their music. And with any form of love comes patience and leeway. I have faith it’ll all work out, even if they don’t play Paranoid Android in Tampa.
After the show, it may be awhile before I revisit The King of Limbs. But you never know. Maybe Thom Yorke will lose his mind on Lotus Flower and it’ll be brilliant. Maybe hearing Codex live will make me rethink everything.
Or maybe they’ll play something all new, like they did in Miami.
I’m getting excited just thinking about it.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*