ver since OK Computer revealed the full extent of the band’s exhaustive ambitions, Radiohead has been regarded almost by default as a consummate “studio” act, one of the foremost in all of postmodern rock. It’s not difficult to see why, given the group’s penchant for overarching concepts and blanket observations of modern existence, coupled with a reputation for lengthy and emotionally consuming recording sessions as well as an avowed distaste for the spotlight that trails the band from concert to interview to award show.
However, this commonly received identity distorts the band’s actual worth in two ways, underselling Radiohead as gripping, revelatory live performers while potentially overselling them as the savviest of studio geniuses. The fact is that Radiohead hasn’t always demonstrated the shrewdest ear when the time came to transfer blueprints and sketches onto irrevocable LPs. Unadorned lovelies like “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and “How to Disappear Completely” have been gunked up with ill-fitting filigree while other songs (“The Gloaming”) weren’t fed enough. Most egregiously, several surefire classics (“Big Boots,” “True Love Waits,” “Follow Me Around”) have been left on the cutting room floor in favor of baffling inferiors (“Morning Bell/Amnesiac” anyone?).
Meanwhile, Radiohead the touring animal boasts a severely underappreciated talent for adding new contours of sound and meaning to its studio creations. Sometimes a song is rendered perfectly even before being formally recorded, only to be fouled up afterwards, while occasionally a relative studio misfire is redeemed in concert, reimagined entirely and given a second lease on life (just look at how “Like Spinning Plates” went from being a self-indulgent stopgap to owning a supremely moving piano intro that remains one of the group’s most elegiac moments to date).
During the months of May and June, Radiohead toured throughout Europe and the United States, consequently unveiling over a dozen new songs, each one at least prohibitively likely to appear on the band’s seventh proper album, tentatively due in 2007. In the spirit of celebrating the terrific work the group continues to do as a live entity while also presaging the sad possibility that certain songs may eventually be marred or lost altogether, let’s examine the health and future prospects of these yet-to-be-claimed orphans.
A stirring, surprisingly uplifting song that imagines an afterlife where a tech-savvy St. Peter reviews your life’s story on VHS. The first minute provides the highlights here, just a steady, deliberate piano and Thom Yorke’s pained voice describing Mephistopheles reaching up to snare his eternal soul. The band enters later but doesn’t quite know what to do, riding a perfunctory groove to a 5+ minute running time. Yorke’s startling admission that “today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen” lends a slightly unsettling Lou Reed-like resolution to the proceedings, but this one still won’t be truly stunning until its movements and passages are a little better delineated.
Beginning with the same kind of brittle beats that heralded “Idioteque,” this song’s a less-desperate cousin to that Kid A classic that relies almost as heavily on its percussion. The guitar line is languid and loose-limbed, and there’s an overdose of effects just past the halfway point that gives way to a more insistent finish—again, much like “Idioteque.” While only a shadow of its predecessor in the shiver-inducing department, it’s still an energetic and expressive keeper.
The lyrics, containing references to the ocean, fishes, and being eaten by worms, are boilerplate Yorke, but the real marvel lies in how well the swirling, disorienting music mimics them. The brisk drumbeat clashes powerfully with the deliberate slowness of the guitar, and the effect points both to the bodily dislocation of the words as well as their intimation of something transcendent (as do Ed O’Brien’s scene-stealing wails during the chorus). Unfortunately, the song suffers similarly to “Videotape” in not knowing how to properly send itself off—hopefully it’ll be tightened up in the studio.
The steady, undeterred drumbeat echoes “There There,” but this urgent rocker is far more feral and convincing than Hail to the Thief’s first single. The line “I’ve no idea what I am talking about” is already drawing an inordinate amount of attention from critics as it allows them to bring up Yorke’s frequent inscrutability and then congratulate themselves for pointing out the apparent irony. Consequently they’re missing Yorke’s utterly terrifying delivery of the succeeding query, “has the light gone for you?”—here’s hoping those raw, bleeding edges aren’t salved in the studio.
Bangers and Mash
Another nasty little piece of shrapnel, this one’s arguably Radiohead’s fiercest start-to-finish effort since “Electioneering.” The tambourine gets a thrashing like it’s a “Dollars and Cents” redux, but this song breaks necks while that one merely simmered. The words are fairly impenetrable, but the positively cracked way in which Yorke spits out the word “poison” on virtually every live version demands to be replicated on tape. Did I mention how satisfying it is to hear guitarist Jonny Greenwood tear his teeth into something menacing again for old time’s sake?
Once “True Love Waits” popped up on the I Might Be Wrong live disc in 2001, this harrowing swooner (alternately titled “Big Ideas”) became the undisputed Holy Grail of Radiohead’s dustbin. The messy but mesmerizing organ glimpsed in earlier incarnations has long since vanished, but this despairing tune still remains one of the band’s starkest efforts in a career full of emotionally paralyzed lullabies. Certainly not a new song in the literal sense, the band has nonetheless been trotting it out with regularity throughout the current tour, leading to rampant speculation that it’s been earmarked for the forthcoming record.
This itchy, densely-worded track may not pack the same flash of other up-tempo newbies, but it’s a potential classic just waiting to be unearthed. Perhaps the most lyrically rewarding of all the new material, with Yorke quixotically warning “words are a sawed-off shotgun” but also mentioning dancing with something actually resembling wistfulness (a far cry from the “dance you fucker” refrain from “Wolf at the Door”). At one point Yorke even proclaims “the beat goes round and round”—surely Girls Aloud would approve.
Pretty aptly titled for such a ponderous little fragment of what, one hopes, will someday be a bigger and better song—too bad “Go to Sleep” is already taken. Perhaps aiming for some of the gravity we got from “Pyramid Song” and “Sail to the Moon,” this sluggish downer is simultaneously too conceptually puny yet mired by its stodgy instrumentation.
A silly little surf-rockish instrumental that’s apparently supposed to illustrate Radiohead’s “sense of humor” much like “Underneath the Bunker” ostensibly did for R.E.M. Sorry, but I think I’ll stick with “Coke Babies” and “Pop Is Dead” when wanting yuks from Yorke and co.
All I Need
Pronounced drums and fat, rhythmic piano chords propel this somewhat sketchily rendered number, which hasn’t been performed more than a handful of times and could likely withstand a little embellishing. Yorke’s delivery of the refrain “you are all I need” is warm on its surface but hung as always with hints of isolation and despair.
Down Is the New Up
For years Yorke has derived much of his lyrical potency from taking commonplace snatches of conversation and cliché (“High and Dry,” “House of Cards,” “Climbing up the Walls”) and twisting them until they’re dripping with irony and full of portent. Lately he’s developed an auxiliary fondness for Orwellian doublethink, as evidenced by “2+2=5” as well as this sinister little number. Probably the funkiest of all the new cuts, it features some stunningly icy harmonizing in the chorus as well as a quavering, slightly hysterical falsetto turn from Yorke.
4 Minute Warning
The title refers to the amount of foreknowledge the U.K. government could give its citizens in the event of a missile attack during the Cold War (as opposed, I guess, to indicating Yorke has a poor grasp of the late-game timeout situation in American football). As to the song itself, it’s among the best of the bunch, a brave-faced but slowly crumbling ballad that paints a fragmentary but frightening portrait of imminent doom with mostly just drums and a solemn, mournful piano. Say what you will about Radiohead’s reach exceeding its grasp, but it’s almost impossible to imagine such naked terror ever being conveyed by Coldplay, Bloc Party, or virtually any other modern British band.
House of Cards
Typically the final new song performed by the band in recent concerts, and they couldn’t possibly exit to greater triumph. A number of these new compositions stand shoulder to shoulder with the group’s finest efforts, and yet “House of Cards” still outclasses the lot of them by a considerable distance. Built on a lightly swaggering, fairly insouciant groove that conjures up the Rolling Stones of all people (particularly “Waiting on a Friend”), it could be a blithely untroubled trifle, only Yorke’s lyrics are achingly direct and his delivery wrings every ounce of tortured longing out of them. “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover,” Yorke unblinkingly begins, and when he hits the payoff, “forget about your house of cards / And I’ll deal mine,” it’s hard to envision a dry eye in the house. Simply put, this song is already completely perfect and probably already one of the ten most magnificent achievements in Radiohead’s catalogue. Should they perchance decide to touch a single hair on its pretty little head they’ll most assuredly be hearing from my lawyer.
This article relies on an examination of over a dozen live recordings from Radiohead’s current European and North American tour. The specific versions described here are mostly taken from the band’s 6/23 performance at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA. Other dates culled for analysis include the 5/9 show in Amsterdam, the 5/18 performance in London, and the two concerts the band gave in Los Angeles on 6/29 and 6/30.