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How Radiohead Keep Everybody Guessing

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How Radiohead Keep Everybody Guessing
Dave M. Benett/Getty

Radiohead released a CD last week, and nobody really cared. You have to admit, that doesn't happen often. They already released The King of Limbs last month as a digital dump, and got the most baffled reactions of their baffling career. The songs were pretty good — they're Radiohead songs, you know? — but fans were puzzled by how the whole thing felt like a deliberate non-event. After mastering the art of packaging every new album as a major breakthrough, Radiohead made sure nobody would hear this one as any kind of big deal. It's like Abed told Jeff on Community: "Everyone else is growing and changing all the time, and that's not really my jam."

Photos: Fifteen Years of Radiohead

Like many Radiohead fans, I thought they blew it with this album in February by jumping the gun on the download release date, pushing it up from Saturday to Friday without warning. It must have seemed like a very Gaga thing to do, but it really just killed the buzz. Most fans had spent the whole week looking forward to the album, the way we all did with In Rainbows in 2007. Falling out of bed on a Friday morning and finding out the long-awaited global event is over, and you're already late for a party that started without you, well, that isn't much fun. No wonder most of the reviews were rushed and impatient first-listen blather, especially since the music was so low-key.

Review: The King of Limbs

But now that King of Limbs exists as a CD ("physical release," what an evocative phrase), I'm wondering if this is all part of Radiohead's master plan. Maybe Radiohead are ahead of us all, and King of Limbs is their cunningly plotted critique of the modern listening process? Like the Community episode where they try to throw Abed a Pulp Fiction-themed surprise party, except he misses it because he makes Jeff sit through a long fancy dinner? Except then it turns out Abed was just constructing his own elaborate homage to My Dinner With Andre? Yeah. Like that. So did Radiohead kill the party? Or are they staging an even awesomer meta-party?

The Future According to Radiohead: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

One thing is clear: if you're the kind of fan who expects them to service you with big statements and emotional breakthroughs, Radiohead are fucking with you. The music avoids all their usual "we hope you like our new direction" hijinks. The first four songs still sound stiff and dim, but the final four open up on CD, where you can hear a lot more bass. "Giving Up The Ghost" now has a full-on Grateful Dead vibe, thanks to Colin Greenwood—he does everything except sing "Box of Rain" in his five-minute quest to turn into Phil Lesh. At least half the songs sound remarkably like the Fine Young Cannibals, to the point where you wonder what Thom Yorke would sound like yelping "She Drives Me Crazy."

They also go out of their way to make the CD itself a totally un-fetishizable piece of product. There's no bonus tracks or fancy artwork. The album package is so crummy it has to be some kind of statement on consumerism — the cardboard is thin and flimsy, and even the glue is cheap. With my copy, purchased for $11.99 the day of release, the sleeve ripped the first time I took the disc out. All the CD does is sound better, which (I guess) is what CDs are for. I'd hoped hearing the weaker songs in this format would make me like them, but that hasn't happened yet, "yet" always being a crucial qualifier when talking about Radiohead.

I've learned not to trust my snap judgements about Radiohead albums, since I was one of the many, many, MANY fans who thought Kid A was a laughably inept gaffe at first. (There were tons of us, but it's like the crowds who booed Dylan at Newport — good luck finding anyone who admits it.) Especially Radiohead albums that seem designed to trick people into making snap judgements. But by denying us immediate payoffs, and thwarting our expectation for ice-age-coming-tastic revelations, maybe they're just noodging us to listen slow, to give up our addiction to first impressions and quickie opinions and message-board meh-gasms. Maybe the snap-judgement commandos are the magpies Yorke complains about in the album's weakest song. ("Now you've stolen all the magic. Took my melody.") I wouldn't put it past him. And he does have a point. If Kid A came out today, nobody would have stuck with it long enough for a third listen. That shit took time.

Radiohead do have a lot in common with Abed — they're the fast-blinking, stoic, removed, uncomfortably self-aware type. So it's always safe to assume they have some kind of scheme in mind. Nobody seems to grok the scheme behind King of Limbs. But maybe that's part of their scheme. Sometimes emotional breakthroughs are overrated.

As parties go, it was quiet, dark, and a little lame. We'd had better parties and we'd had worse parties. But I doubt I'll ever forget my dinner with Radiohead.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he writes about music, TV and pop culture. He is the author of two books, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

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