But what has been sorely missing from these appraisals is the recognition of what's perhaps the band's greatest and hardest-won victory, a victory so paradoxical it boggles the mind. The simple fact is that after four long years of trying, Radiohead has finally captured the crown they've desperately wanted ever since Thom Yorke started wondering what the hell he was doing here back in 1993. For the first time since their inception, Radiohead is completely irrelevant.
It's a tragedy that owes largely to the palatability of the current pop scene. So-called serious rock fans (SRFs) have been bitching for months about the awful pleasantness of it all, with radio dominated by apple-pie heartthrobs and pissed-off frat boys whose music is, at its core, so patently inoffensive even mothers in Subaru Outbacks find themselves admitting they did it for the nookie, the nookie, the nookie.
The problem comes when SRFs start looking for the tonic to this mass appeal, a tonic that aggravates non-SRFs while reinforcing the fans' position as deep-thinking pop scholars whose record collections come to them from G-O-D rather than BMG. This cure, of course, is the difficult record -- a concept that's thoroughly outmoded since, at this stage of the game, how to be daring has become completely, almost laughably, codified. In layman's terms, the difficult record is one that the meaty part of the pop curve will roundly dismiss as boring or weird, assessments that serve to reinforce all of the SRFs deepest beliefs about both themselves and the band they worship (simply, that they exist on a plane above).
Radiohead's latest effort, Amnesiac, released to deafening fanfare in early June, satisfies all these requirements. Moody and mostly beatless, the wildly unconventional songs drone with lyrics as readily comprehensible as any given excerpt from Ulysses. For these reasons, it's largely considered one of our generation's Big Important Records (BIR).
But the truth is that, for all the same reasons, it's no BIR at all.
Because consider, if you will, Sgt Pepper. Consider Blonde on Blonde or What's Goin' On or, perhaps most appropriately, the mid-'80s work of David Bowie. For all their off-kilter experimentation, records like Heroes and Lodger -- the A-sides, anyway -- are still firmly rooted in the basic premise of good melody and careful songwriting.
Amnesiac, by contrast, sounds lazy. It's one loping synth line after another topped with Yorke, whose four-note vocal moans sound not so much like he's searching for hope or truth, but rather seeking out a decent melody. And while so much of what is celebrated about Radiohead is how they apparently make their own rules, it's also awfully easy to pole vault when you're setting the bar yourself.
Amnesiac's other glaring problem runs exactly counter to the SRF notion about the accessibility of a great record, namely that its virtues should only be obvious to an enlightened few (a premise so rooted in elitism and insecurity it would take hundreds more column inches to illustrate its manifold dangers). The fact is that, with a handful of exceptions, the bulk of truly defining rock records over the last 30 years have always carried some sort of populist appeal. Radiohead's decision to retreat to the interior landscape, to make difficult records for a cadre of fans who baldly praise everything they do doesn't signify victory in the war against mediocre pop. It signifies surrender.
Quite likely, Radiohead will be spellbinding live, even in the shadow of Confederate war heroes. They are, at their core, a spectacular rock band who have created three genuine masterpieces: The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A (a lot more accessible than it's given credit for). But until they learn to not only accept this fact, but also wear it with pride, their recorded output will continue to veer dangerously downward into dull, self-indulgent and wholly academic exercises. Rock 'n' roll already has been reinvented. What we need now is people who know how to take the new machine and make it sing.
Radiohead play the Meadow at Stone Mountain Park Mon., July 30. Tickets are sold out. Note: Ticket holders are required to pay the $7 per vehicle admission to the park. For more information, call 770-498-5633.
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