Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somehow, I never got into Radiohead. It just flew by, like a Frisbee that maybe I was supposed to catch but I had headphones on and just kept walking. Maybe it was because I’d had my share of head-related band names. I listened to Blenderhead, a Christian punk band (I know, I cringe too, but they were good!), and I had friends that listened to Motörhead, and I think I might’ve spent an odd week or two rocking out to Machine Head. But no Radiohead.

I certainly should’ve been a fan. I became a preteen music geek in the era of Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana. In high school, my social circle was dominated by a group of friends with similarly obsessive musical tastes. This was just moments before Napster made high-intake musical treasure-hunting easy, back when you had to talk to touring bands, see shows by bands you’d never heard of, and—shock and horror!—go to actual record stores, preferably dingy, dusty places run by eccentric, overweight guys with beards who were living below the poverty line in an attic by the train tracks. The goal was always to be the guy to “break” a new band to the home scene, so the trick, basically, was to listen to and assess as much music as humanly possible (which explains some of my tendencies today). Later, my first published writing was (pretty bad) music criticism, in one of those fat, overstuffed, insidery music zines that caters to people who can name every single one of Tim Kinsella’s side projects.

So theoretically, I was target number one for Radiohead fandom. But aside from the obvious stuff (“Creep,” “Everything in its Right Place”), I remained basically oblivious until In Rainbows hit. So I come at the album almost completely blank, not invested in or against the band at all, which I gather is odd, since pretty much everyone who’s dabbled in music nerdery seems to have some sort of opinion.

The first thing I should say about it is that you need to listen to it on good speakers, and preferably some sort of four or five speaker setup. This is partly because the album works best when you give it the chance to envelop you. You don’t want songs like “All I Need” to come at you; you want them to surround you. Many of the tracks on the album have an almost liquid quality, producing big, gushing waves of sound.

You also want to find a high-end setup in part because the production is so nuanced, so careful and detailed, that it’s tough to appreciate without quality reproduction. The classic iPod headphones, for example, are probably not going to let you hear record in anything resembling glory.

But heard on the right set of speakers, the production is pretty astounding. Almost all the innovation in musical production these days is in hip-hop. Kanye West, Timbaland (working by himself and with various collaborators), and M.I.A. have done some exceptional work this year, turning out albums that are near-perfect combinations of experimental, accessible, and exciting.

The world of rock production, in comparison, is stale. Much as I enjoyed, say, the new Foo Fighters album, it made almost no attempt to innovate, or even push the band’s sound much beyond where it’s stayed for the last decade. Radiohead’s sonics prove that the world of rock recording is not entirely inert. The bass and drums have an eerily direct quality, almost like electronic reproductions, but without the thin sound that almost inevitably results from faking instruments. Meanwhile, the guitars have this lovely, compact timbre, as if you’d stuck your ear right next to a very high-quality amp turned to a very low volume.

Everything on the album simply sounds marvelous. There’s a sheen of luxury covering every sound; it’s all been buffed and polished to perfection, and crafted only from the highest quality materials.

If there’s a problem, it’s that almost all of the album’s pleasures can be traced, in one way or another, to the production. Other than “15 Steps,” which boasts a dizzyingly complex percussion line, like a marching band drum cadence disintegrated and then rebuilt in space by intelligent robots, only “Bodysnatchers,” and maybe “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” really have hooks.

The others just don’t seem to have much to them. Compositionally complex as they may be, they’re a fog, wispy and ethereal, a great gaseous mass of mood. It’s not so much a collection of songs as a aural description of a feeling. This, generally, makes it good reading and writing music, good thinking music, good graphic-design music, good morning-drive music (when NPR is blathering on during a fund-raising drive, anyway)—essentially, good music to comfortably engage your brain while it’s doing something else.

In other words, Radiohead has managed to make the world’s best elevator muzak album, at once brilliant and slightly boring. It’s enough to make me want to spend time going through their back catalog (which I’ve already started doing, but not enough to really form an opinion). But it’s not enough for me, after a decade or so of hearing about Radiohead but paying little attention, to really understand what all the fuss has been about