Before you punch a hole in your screen, full disclosure: Neither of us is a Radiohead fan. If you’re looking for a comprehensive review of the British superstars’ Austin City Limits Music Festival debut, check out Ramon Ramirez’s weekend one review or Eric Pulsifer’s love letter to Thom Yorke.
We don’t hate Radiohead, but we wanted to understand why people love this band so much. So for their second weekend at ACL, we decided to celebrate Thom Yorke’s birthday by finding out for ourselves.
DSS: Pregame report: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you get Radiohead? I’d place myself as a 6, maybe a 7. I appreciate their skills as composers and musicians, and I feel like I understand why people are into them, but after listening to them for ten minutes, my mind is wandering and I’m mentally reviewing the 20 other things I’d rather be listening to.
EW: Firmly a 4 for me. I have a working concept of Radiohead, and I understand that there are things about them to appreciate. Interesting sonic levels! Mood you can drown in! But I’ve put on “OK Computer” and “Kid A” plenty of times and lost interest every time. Radiohead is just … there, for me. So, how did the needle move for you?
DSS: Standing in a field surrounded by people singing along to “Paranoid Android” definitely made me appreciate the resonance of this band. There’s something very admirable about a rock band becoming incredibly famous and influential without ever even attempting to write anything resembling a hook. Having said that, their music is so dense, that I really struggled to keep my head in it. The biggest sticking point for me is Thom Yorke’s voice, which meanders between simper, moan and howl. I have limited patience for whiny men in general and (sorry to say) whiny white men in particular and it took me about 30 minutes into that two-hour show to hit my threshold.
EW: Well, the first note I jotted down during the show was “ghost taking a s***,” if that’s a barometer of my interest. Usually, seeing a band I don’t like live will lead me to do a 180. It happened with me and Arcade Fire. But this Radiohead show was the opposite. Now I slightly get why people enjoy them a little more, but I have realized I will never be into them. As a whiny white man who truly loves some whiny white men’s music — your Bon Ivers, your James Blakes — Thom Yorke just feels like mewling in a traffic jam to me. The wildly shifting levels, from cacophony to heartache and back again, were worth a critical listen. I’m not a musician, so I don’t primarily enjoy music for subtle technical intricacies. I’m happy for people that do listen to these songs and get a thrill from that. But I had hoped a big festival set would make Radiohead more accessible, and it pretty much did the opposite.
DSS: I had a revelation part way through that if you came of age pulling bong hits to these songs in your dorm room while trying to negotiate your emotional evolution, then I totally (maybe?) get how it might be super meaningful to listen to these songs now. But unlike the other WWMs you mentioned whose music has a more straight ahead emotional focus, there’s a heightened intellectualism to the emotional malaise of Radiohead that I find off-putting. This is music that takes itself very seriously. No ones ever gets a good belly laugh out of a Radiohead song, or a good dance move for that matter. That’s fine, but it also can be exhausting. There were some very nice musical moments though, the way the lovely melodic passages built into a sonic cyclone on “Idioteque.” Closer “Fake Plastic Trees” was also beautiful. Turns out I like melodic Radiohead. Any musical highlights for you?
EW: Oh, every time I heard the faintest hint of a melody, my heart rate went all “Jason Statham in ‘Crank.'” Like on “No Surprises,” which I also liked better when it was a Velvet Underground song. (I imagine that is not a very original thought.) “Idioteque,” too, dangled something resembling a hook in front of my nose. But to this listener, Yorke keening aside, this was sonic “Groundhog Day.” The longest song of all time. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how perfectly fine it is that some people want to sway around to eerie Martian ambience and intrepid guitars that sound like they want to murder you where you stand, all while a serial mumbler shambles around the stage. But I don’t think that’s my scene, especially at a two-hour festival set after I’ve been schlepping my body around in the sun all day. Final thoughts?
DSS: It’s funny that you mention the longest song of all time, because I realized pretty quickly that I don’t have the attention span for Radiohead. When I began my quest to understand Radiohead, I asked for suggestions of songs to check out. I was told they aren’t a singles band, you have to listen to whole albums. That’s a big time commitment. Another friend said you have to treat it like jazz, and though technically, I’m sure they have a lot in common, musically jazz is so much more accessible to me. I went in wanting to be won over, but after an hour standing in Zilker trying to keep my head in the game enough to understand it, I found myself enviously eyeing the good chunk of the crowd who were booking for the exit.
EW: What the hell were we doing there, Deborah? We didn’t belong there. I think that Radiohead is cilantro. If you like it, you want to crawl into a vat of pico de gallo and eat your way out. If you don’t like it, it tastes like Irish Spring. Thom Yorke and his crew live in a world that’s shadowy and noisy and full of pain and probably looks a lot like the Upside-Down from “Stranger Things.” It’s a nice (?) place to visit, but I don’t want to live there. I think my years-long quest to get this band has come to a definitive end. Enjoy your free downloadable albums or whatever.