Song of the Day: Radiohead, "Burn the Witch"
I feel guilty for not liking this because I want to be able to support Radiohead, one of the few rock bands alive with any standing that consistently perform well both critically and commercially. Plenty of bands are left over from the '90s and cashing big checks, but most of them aren't actually trying. Thom Yorke and his mates are one of the few legacy groups that continue to push themselves independent of whatever is happening around them. They innovate from within, rather than subject themselves to of-the-moment pop trends and filtering it through their lenses (which often stands in place of actual inventiveness for most groups).
I also don't want to be one of those people who used to like Radiohead. As an evolved music fan, I tell myself that I'm always rooting for artists to push boundaries beyond their comfort zones, but more often than not I'm annoyed when anybody has the temerity to swerve into a different lane. (This undoubtedly makes me part of the problem.) Some of my favorite music ever made can be found in Radiohead's first wave, from the snarling thump of "Creep" to the cascading lope of "Black Star" to the jittery crunch of "Electioneering" to the pure haunt of "How To Disappear Completely" to the rhythmic hiccups of "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box." All of those tracks (and the albums that surrounded them) tip-toed an excruciatingly fine line that Radiohead had established for themselves: the gap between the curiosity that arose from their born-in humanity and the irksome suspicion that the technological solutions for modern living generated by that exploration were actually going to destroy us all. Yorke has always been worried about alienation, but his primary concern on OK Computer appears to be about actually turning into a robot (at first metaphorically, then painfully literally).
The paint started to chip for me around the release of 2003's Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's most outwardly political album. It was initially hailed as an emergence from the electronic wilderness for the band, but while there were more guitar sounds on Thief's first single "There There" than there were on most of Kid A and Amnesiac combined, the band retained a brand of stilted formalism that is necessary when your songs are so painstakingly curated. Yorke's worst fears had come true—the band had started operating like robots. Since then, that has been their standard operating procedure. In Rainbows, the surprise 2007 album that first planted the seeds for the way most every top-tier artist releases music nowadays, saw the band drifting back into bleeps and bloops, and they followed it with 2011's The King of Limbs, their most purely electronic outing since Amnesiac. With each release, I felt Yorke losing more and more of his humanity, sacrificing the visceral quality of the band's earlier work for the sake of sound manipulation. As an intellectual pursuit, it has been fascinating. As music from a band that used to make me feel things, it's fucking garbage.
"Burn the Witch" is certainly more song-like than anything the band has done in years, but it still leaves me feeling a little hollow. It suffers from the same stuffy formalism that stalls a lot of indie rockers—acts like Tame Impala (a clear spawn of Radiohead) or Bon Iver get so wrapped up in craft and execution that it makes the possibility of feeling anything particularly remote. There's a way to balance intricate construction with non-twee human emotions (Sleater-Kinney did a particularly deft job of just that on their comeback album No Cities To Love), but most bands don't seem to care about that (and, most importantly, audiences don't seem to demand it).
I hate that Radiohead's early work coincides with my teenage years, because it is impossible for me to extricate my feelings about the band from the time in my life when I felt more passionately about music. But as a guy who once thought Rancid's ...And Out Come The Wolves was one of the greatest albums ever made (I still sort of think that, actually), I could get behind Yorke's version of angst, which was best expressed on tracks like the feistiness of "My Iron Lung" and the existential panic of "Karma Police."
Look, it's entirely possible that aging in rock music is actually impossible. Of the bands I loved when I was younger, the only acts who are still making music I care about tend to be doing it in relative obscurity and mostly mining familiar territory (for example, Soul Asylum just released a pretty impressive record that sounds like it could have been cut in '95 and will also be heard by about a dozen people). Of the ones who still operate on a more mainstream level, they're all carried by their own internal momentum rather than musical innovation (save for Queens of the Stone Age, who do manage to toss a curveball or two every album while still maintaining their fundamental identity, though they're only a theater-sized band—they generally can't fill arenas). I still like a lot of music, but the stuff that really turns my head tends to be made by actual teenagers or super-intense metalheads. Radiohead are neither.