Re-visitation and re-evaluation

I’ve not posted anything much on The ‘Spill for ages, apart from a few comments here and there, work has been taking up lots of time and I am conscious that although I am listening to lots of music, I am not really writing about it. So, I thought that I’d better do something about that state of affairs.

Anyway, this piece is all about how sometimes a band can surprise you and make you go back and re-evaluate their back catalogue.

I made a comment on The ‘Spill ages ago about changing my mind about being someone who liked Radiohead to realising that I was someone who actually just liked The Bends and OK Computer.

That was based on the fact that I didn’t like Kid A, an album I’d bought, listened to once or twice and then just dismissed as electronic doodling.

I’d basically not bothered to keep up with what the band were doing, yes, I heard stuff on the radio but most of it I didn’t really get involved with and then King of Limbs came out. I heard “Lotus Flower” on the radio and thought it sublime and “Little By Little” also sounded like a good song to me, one that crept up and grew on me, in a way that Radiohead hadn’t moved me for a long time. So I bought the album and yes, I really liked it a lot. I liked the shifting, elusive quality of the music, the skittering electronic drum patterns, the layered sound and the enigmatic vocals. The music had a maturity that demanded attention. It reminded me of something else.

It engaged me in a way that I thought Radiohead weren’t able to do any more. Even more interestingly, the blend of sounds; electronica, guitars, brass, treated vocals and other instruments sent me back to Kid A. I thought that it finally deserved a re-evaluation. There were things that I thought needed placing in a context.

However, I didn’t go straight at it. I had a whole afternoon of Radiohead. I played King of Limbs, then went back and played The Bends and OK Computer. I had a bit of a think, realising that what I’d previously loved about the two earlier albums didn’t necessarily move me in the same way. I still liked the anthemic rock tracks and the dislocated ballads but the two albums sounded, how can I put it, a bit too straightforward and lacking in subtlety, compared with the slippery, jittery, layered music on the newest album.

So, then I approached Kid A again. Right from the off, the opener “Everything in Its Right Place” clicked. The dissonances, the samples, the avant garde string arrangements, the punchy, discordant brass (that sort of reminded me of some of the brass used on some of King Crimson’s albums) and the electronic treatments finally made sense. I listened to the album and then I listened to it a second time. It still sounded right and, weirdly, because everyone always says how much of a departure it is from what came before, I could hear elements of continuity with OK Computer. Not large elements, but subtle ones, things to search out. Now, listening to Kid A, I don’t hear wilfully difficult experimentation, I hear musical maturity, I hear musicians stretching themselves, re-inventing their band into something beyond the anthems, something mysterious, something deep.

The band has always shunned, rightly I think, the tag of being a “prog” band. I can see that, because they haven’t done anything that I’d call prog. There was always that hype about OK Computer being a Dark Side Of The Moon for the nineties, which was really just hot air. I am not sure that the nineties needed a DSOTM, any more than any other decade ever did, the original doing a perfectly good job by itself. However, there is something in the experimentation, the use of the avant garde and the way the music on Kid A is structured that is really progressive in a real sense. It is progressive because it marked genuine musical progress for Radiohead. It took them away from the stadium rock that would have been a straight-jacket. Plenty of bands would have probably been happy to carry on cashing in on “Creep”, “The Bends” and “Paranoid Android” for a couple of decades, but Kid A gave Radiohead a whole new language and landscape to explore. In a way, I am kind of glad that it took me this long to make the connection. It is nice to be surprised occasionally and it is always good to have a prejudice overturned.

So, can I call myself a Radiohead fan again? Well, I think the answer has to be “Yes” to that one.

The only problem now, is what do I think of the guitar-based albums now, as opposed to the electronic ones? I am currently thinking that the electronica is what I want to hear most.

So, back to the basic premise again. Can recent music by bands and artists make you reassess their back catalogue and see their output in a different way? We are used to seeing music come out in a linear way. Is there real worth in approaching a body of work in reverse? What can it tell us about the artists to look at their past music through the filter of their present work?

I don’t have an answer necessarily, but maybe there are other views here?