Radiohead are smart guys. That’s fairly obvious, I mean you don’t need to be an obsessive fan to see the thought that goes into their music, the level of care with the stuff that goes with it; album art, liner notes, videos, etc. suggesting they take this all rather seriously. Which is cool but hardly anything beyond the ordinary for a band as big and respected as they are. So when I read the article linked below, I was a little surprised;
N.B. The article doesn’t mention you need to put a 10 second crossfade between each track to get the full effect, which it’s pretty easy to get iTunes to do.
I assumed after reading that article that putting the two records together would be a weird and vaguely unsatisfying experience, there’s no way anyone could write a cohesive record that also doubles as a counterpoint to another record. Well, apparently Radiohead are a fuck of a lot smarter than I am because I’d swear blind that ’01 and 10′ is a better album than either of it’s constituent records. Which is kind of a big thing when one of those records is often named as the most important, even best, album of the 90’s.
It gets more impressive the more you think about it too. Ten years on from a series of recording sessions that almost tore the band apart they were once again facing a ‘What the fuck do we do next?’ moment. They had no record deal and were letting out the odd rumour that they might be done with Radiohead, that they might have run the project as far as it would go.
Mad bastards that they are, they decided to try and beat themselves, make an album that stands right next to their best in terms of quality whilst also maintaining and twisting new ideas from the same atmosphere as that first record. Thing is, in the ten years since recording it they’d changed a lot, moved even further away from traditional arrangements into an area no-one has really managed to follow them into. So the new album would have to work both with their new style and the way they worked a decade prior.
The constrictions imposed by this insane plan must have made songwriting a fun challenge, the intro of each song would have to fit with both the track that comes before it on ‘In Rainbows’ and whichever song from ‘OK Computer’ it follows while the end would have to do the same with the next pair of tracks. And they’d have to make each song interesting to a modern audience without doing something that would conflict with the sound and mood of the old album. Every song had to make sense as part of two entirely separate progressions without either seeming schizoid.
‘OK Computer’ is freaked-out nightmare of a record, the sound of a band deeply unsettled by fame and rejecting everything they’d ever been told . Yet, if you read any of the reviews of ‘In Rainbows’ you might remember the consensus that it was Radiohead’s nicest record, that it bordered on loving in places. How the hell do these two disparate collections of songs work together?
My suspicion is this; ten years on from what must have been a pretty unpleasant time in their lives the group were facing a similar challenge and they wanted to respond to it in a new way. They didn’t disagree with the things they’d said on ‘OK Computer’, but ten years is a long time and aging had shown them that there are other ways of looking at the same issues. So ‘In Rainbows’ becomes the counter argument to their younger selves, the wisdom they needed back then delivered without contradicting their original take on the situation. Put together the two records give you the starkness of the music they’d made at the end of the nineties undercut with the lessons they’d learned in the intervening years.
It must have been a good handle for dealing with what they were faced with back in the real world too, a constant reminder that they’d beaten a challenge like this before and come out of it stronger. It’s also a good handle for those of us who haven’t gotten everything out of ‘OK Computer’ yet, a key to understanding what it was they were trying to say back then that doubles as a great album in it’s own right. I can’t honestly think of another band that could have pulled this off, and even if they had you’d think they’d have told someone about it once they’d done it. I can’t decide if that’s integrity or insanity but whatever it is it’s one hell of a record.