The moment Radiohead announced a concert on Feb. 29 in Tampa, I booked the day off work.
Come Leap Day, I wanted nothing to stand between me and my favorite band of all time — no rushed assignments at work, no chance of being swallowed by bridge traffic. I would leave nothing to fate.
Then I read an interview with Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien.
"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."
"This record" is The King of Limbs, Radiohead's eighth studio album. It is not the band's worst. But for me, The King of Limbs just . . . is. I listened to it a couple of times, and then I mostly forgot about it. It's the first Radiohead album that meant nothing to me.
Many people love The King of Limbs. I want to love it, too. But is it possible to make yourself care about art that simply doesn't speak to you?
So I launched an experiment. Starting Feb. 1, I listened to The King of Limbs in its entirety every day. What was it about this album that I wasn't getting? Was it me?
Call it music therapy. Me and my favorite band, facing each other on a couch in my mind, working through our rough patch together.
If A Work Of Art is meant to resonate — a book, a film, a song — you should 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 have reacted warily. Then we listened again. And again. We let it sit. Often we have 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. "And my first reaction was kind of a negative one. . . . And it wasn't until probably three or four more listens that I realized, Wow, this s---'s brilliant."
Tabish told me this on Feb. 6, six days into my experiment. I was still nowhere near ready to call The King of Limbs "brilliant." Clearly, I just hadn't given it enough spins.
"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. 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. The album still wasn't talking to me, but I did see a couple of baby gators. That was nice.
Last fall, Coldplay — another British rock band that has been 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.
This troubled me. I've never felt this way about Coldplay before. 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 partners. "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. The absence that supposedly makes the heart grow fonder? There was none of that. It was date after date after date, and all I wanted was one night off to watch the game.
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.
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 Scripture. I may not love The King of Limbs, but it was beginning to speak to me.
Or maybe it was just Stockholm Syndrome.
Late in the month, it occurred to me: By focusing so intently on The King of Limbs, I had completely neglected the seven Radiohead albums that came before it.
So when Leap Day rolled around, my King of Limbs homework in the books, I started digging through my mental crate. I spent five minutes dashing off a list of songs I hoped to hear live.
I came up with 37. A ridiculous, starry-eyed number.
Come on, Thom, I thought. I've done my part here. Give me something.
When the band took the stage, three of the first five songs were from The King of Limbs. You'd think I'd have felt let down by this 20-minute stretch, but the thrill of seeing the band was more than enough to compensate. Plus, my familiarity with The King of Limbs was paying immediate dividends. I felt more prepared than the other 11,961 fans in the crowd. While some of them could only mumble and hum along, I could sing most every word proudly. My last month had been justified.
Of the 37 songs on my wish list, the band played 10. I cannot complain about that.
Yet, as is the case in any relationship, the things left unsaid often speak the loudest. All night, I couldn't stop thinking about the songs Radiohead wasn't playing, the many points in our decade-and-a-half history that they obstinately refused to acknowledge. High and Dry. Electioneering. Optimistic. Why these songs no longer mean as much to Radiohead as they do to me is a mystery.
I realize, of course, that it is selfish and unfair of me to think that way. I am one fan among millions. I may be in a relationship with Radiohead, but Radiohead is not in a relationship with me. I get that.
It may be a while before I revisit The King of Limbs, but I'm sure Radiohead and I will be fine. I know this because mixed into the band's set list was a song called Identikit that I'd never heard before. It was loud and electric and it has stuck with me.
I've got that tingly feeling in my hippocampus again.
Jay Cridlin can be reached at [email protected]