Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Radiohead Week, Day 6: “Just ‘Coz You Feel It, Doesn’t Mean It’s There”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 15, 2007

Somewhere I’m not so scatterbrained…

Expectations can be a bitch.

And I don’t mean expectations that other people have of you/your band. Yeah, those are a bitch too, but everyone knows that, most of all Radiohead, who spent the better part of a decade trying to dodge them in one way or another. I’m talking expectations that you have of other bands. No one ever talks about how stressful that can be, but it really is a squeeze. Being a fan of a band–I mean, a true fan, in the geekiest, most un-self-conscious way possible, which I think you can only really be for about a half-dozen artists in your entire life–means that not only do you hope a band’s new album is good just because you want a good new album, but because you’re terrified of the ramifications if it wasn’t up to snuff. You’d be overcome with depression over your band’s fall from grace, ashamed over not “getting it” in the way the artists intended, and utterly wrakcked with guilt for not being able to whole-heartedly defend the album to the band’s haters. It’s terrible pressure to put on a fan, really.

The week I got Hail to the Thief, I’d estimate I listened to it between 20 and 25 times. To some of you, this will seem horrifically excessive, to others, you’re probably saying to yourself “wtf, 20 to 25 times? And he calls himself a fan?” But considering I don’t think I’ve listened to the same album more than eight or nine times since I left for college, understand that this is a fair amount. And every time I listened to the album, I had a different opinion of it. But what I eventually realized was that these weren’t really my opinions–they were my opinions about what my opinions probably should be. My expectations for the record had been so great, I had spent so much time in mental preparation for it, stressed so much about what I was hearing during my first listen through, and then listened to it so many times, that I had completely psyched myself out of any pure, legitimate thoughts I could have about the album.

I had absolutely no idea how I felt about this album.

And as the months passed, it got no easier. Each time I listened to it again and started to think “hey, this is actually pretty good!” my brain countered with is that what you really think? Or are you just over-compensating for the devestation of what is essentially a sub-par Radiohead album? And then, every time I realized “yeah, I guess this album isn’t that great,” there my brain was with yeah, sure, just take the easy way out, that’s just you toeing the critical line because you’re too scared to say what you really think. My brain can be a fucking asshole sometimes. I mean seriously, what the fuck??? This wasn’t some ridiculously difficult noise rock album or something hard to wrap your head around, this was the most straightforward Radiohead album in eight years. Why couldn’t I just like it or not?

Flash forward to about four years later, and a funny thing happened. I was listening to In Rainbows for the first time, really digging the first few songs, when all of a sudden something reminded me of Hail the Thief, and as my mind flashed to it, I thought to myself “hey, there are some pretty cool songs on that album.” I waited, almost reflexively, for my brain’s inevitable retort. But much to my surprise, it didn’t come. I was just sitting there, listening to “All I Need” for the first time, and all I was thinking was “yeah, ‘Sit Down, Stand Up,’ that song was kinda great. And ‘I Will,” how fucking underrated is that song?” My first logical explanation for this was that this meant In Rainbows was actually so disappointing that I was already getting nostalgic for the last one. But that didn’t make sense–I was actually enjoying this album a lot, and “All I Need” was (and still is) the best song I had heard on it yet. But then the real reason came to me.

There’s a memorable scene in Homicide: Life on the Streets, maybe somewhere around the 5th season, where Kellerman is complaining to someone, Meldrick I think, or maybe Munch, about how pissed off he is about still being treated like the New Guy. He’d been there for a couple years/seasons at that point, and he didn’t understand why people were still acting that way. Lewis/Munch says something like “don’t worry about it, Bailiss was the New Guy for years, and now he’s one of us.” Kellerman says “So when do I stop being the New Guy?” And Lewis/Munch responds, of course, “When some other New Guy comes along.”

And I realized that that’s exactly how I felt about Radiohead. As long as Hail to the Thief was the New Guy, I would still treat it like that, wrapped up with all the anxieties of expectation, the pressure of that fateful first listen, and the mind-numbing redundancy of listening to it dozens of times in a row. But now that In Rainbows had come along and become the official new New Guy, HTTT instantly became just Another Radiohead Album. ‘ve been listening to my Radiohead mp3s on random this last week, and as miscellaneous HTTT tracks have come on (“Sail to the Moon,” “Where I End & You Begin,” “2 + 2 = 5”) I’ve been stunned with how fresh they sound–new, but oddly familiar. It’s an amazing freedom.

What’s more, I realized the same exact thing happened once before, with Amnesiac. The amount of expecation I had for that record was completely insane, even when compared to HTTT. I wore a T-shirt to class literally advertising the album the day it came out–I even pasted a print-out of the album cover to the front. The week after it was released, I absolutley refused to listen to any other album lest it cloud my judgement, so much so that when I accidnetally left it at a friend’s house that weekend, I didn’t listen to anything at all until I got it back two days later (or maybe I caved and borrowed a friend’s copy first, I don’t remember). I’d like to think that I was young enough at the time for it still to qualify as precocious, but needless to say, my obsession was thorough. Yet, for all my enthusiasm about the album, as with HTTT, I found myself perplexed as to my genuine opinon about it. Until, of course, HTTT came out, and then for once, I could sort of size it up at face value.

And all of this is what Radiohead’s approach to releasing In Rainbows was so unthinkably brilliant. Not only did they completely nullify fan expectations–no one had time to pigeonhole it before the thing got released–they freed their fans from placing expectations on themselves. My debut spin of In Rainbows, it was just like listening to any new album for the first time–it just so happened to be that that new album was by my favorite band still making music. And though I can’t say I’m positive I know how I feel about the album, I certainly know which songs I like more than others, and I know that the album has caused me far more joy than it has stress and misery, which is probably the first time I can say that about the release of a new Radiohead album.

I’m calling it at eight listens for this album, too. For both its sake and mine, I’m gonna try to treat it as litlte like the New Guy as possible, and maybe I won’t even have to wait for the band’s next LP–which, for all I know, might not be for another ten years, or might not come at all–for In Rainbows to become just Another Radiohead Album.

*Underrated Radiohead Songs of the Day*

Trans-Atlantic Drawl A bizarre one, even for a b-side in the most bizarre period in Radiohead history. This definitely used to be one of my favorites of theirs, the ridiculous energy and XTRMNTR-like aggression to the first half just melting into the noodly, ambient bit. It’s a little too awkward, but hey, it’s a b-side, awkwardness is its birthright.

Bulletproof…I Wish I Was (Acoustic) One of Radiohead’s prettiest first-period songs, slowed down to near-country levels of balladeering, and sounding all the prettier for it.

Easy Dub All-Stars f/ Toots & the May-Talls- “Let Down You’d have to be insane not to be skeptical about an all-Radiohead reggae cover band (much less one called Radiodread), but these guys do a shockingly good job of making the song their own.

Kid A Theory An experiment based on a theory circulated about five years ago–that if you play two copies of Kid A with something like 12 or 13 seconds in between them, they sync up in all sorts of cool and entirely intentional ways. Dunno if I buy it, but the evidence is certainly worth examining.

Banana CoIn-and out in 2:09, with some nifty hooks, nonsensical lyrics and a guitar solo that actually sounds like it’s drowning in its own distortion. Cool beans.

7 Responses to “Radiohead Week, Day 6: “Just ‘Coz You Feel It, Doesn’t Mean It’s There””

  1. Tony said

    HTTT is excellent. Amazing that a band of true musical avatars could release an album so generally disregarded.

  2. Jason L said

    Good stuff. My view of “Hail to the Thief” is a little different — I tend to find it a little overlong, but with a lot of highlights and interesting detours — but I can understand your point. I’m sort of going through that doubt with “In Rainbows” now. Don’t get me wrong, I really love it, but sometimes I ask myself questions like, “Is the guitar line on ‘Bodysnatchers’ REALLY that impressive? Does ‘House of Cards’ REALLY sound that original?” Some albums just take time to digest; I’m just glad Radiohead gave me something new to chew on.

  3. Sister Jack said

    Hey Andrew,

    About your “Cuttooth”/”Con Science” mishap, I actually have a similar story:

    I got into Radiohead back in 2001. A friend showed me some of their songs (“Idioteque” and some The Bends stuff) and I liked it. I got home and started downloading more random tracks on Kazaa to see if their records were really worth buying. Eventually, I came across “Hunting Bears”, which seemed like an amusing departure for them. It was an instrumental track with a jazzy, loungy feel, strings, brass, tremolo guitar, etc (yeah, I know). It was kind of cheesy, but had gorgeous moments.

    I googled the track and found descriptions of it as an instrumental interlude on their latest jazz-inspired record, so it made sense.

    That’s until I actually got Amnesiac and heard the actual “Hunting Bears”. My jaw also dropped. It was just a lonely guitar and a bassy synth. What the fuck had I been listening to? Unfortunately, I could never figure it out, since unlike that Muse b-side, this track had no lyrics.

    So here it is, “Hunting Bears (The WTF Version)”:

    Anyone know what this is? I might get their record. It’s pleasant. And it does sound a little bit like Radiohead… doesn’t it? If they were trying to pull off Muzak-type Elevator Music shit, this is probably what it would sound like.

  4. brother jill said

    sister jack, post it on
    i KNOW someone there will be able to help you

  5. Mitchell Stirling said

    That’s “Embuscade” by Phoenix. From the 2000 album United which has “Too Young” on it.

  6. Sister Jack said

    Awesome, thank you.

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