Thom Yorke and Polly Jean Harvey were born one year apart, and separately they have risen to the very top of the critics’ darlings list of British musicians over the past two decades with consistently intelligent, restless albums. The king and queen of indie, if you prefer journalistic shorthand.
Like every other person in the country who is remotely interested in recorded sounds, I have, for the past ten days, been listening intently to the new Radiohead album, The King of Limbs, and, to a lesser extent, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. While my first impression of Yorke & Co’s new dispatch (once I’d managed to blank out all the Dancing Thom YouTube silliness) was familiar disappointment at the lack of so-called standout songs (a well-worn complaint since the dawn of the millenium), I quickly started to enjoy the record’s understated and unusual qualities; the spidery percussion, looping basslines and detuned guitars. Like everything Radiohead have done since OK Computer, it’s eminently interesting background music, without the lyrical or era-defining focus of their mid/late 90s output.
But then isn’t Yorke’s commitment to cryptic, throwaway messages, disorientating time signatures and dubious dance moves becoming a little tiresome, a bit predictable in itself? Wouldn’t it be more refreshing if Radiohead were to unpack their guitars and produce a truly monumental record that didn’t sound like the studio noodlings of five self-indulged 40-something men but took on the absurdities and injustices of 21st century life with the kind of burning anger that underpinned tracks like ‘Paranoid Android’ or the caustic cynicism of ‘Just’?
I’m breaking my own habit here, by the way. I’ve always defended and applauded Yorke’s risky reconfiguring of the Radiohead sound following their huge early success, and the constant complaints from Dad Rockers around the nation about the lack of big, distorted guitars are misguided at best.
But the reason I’m questioning this latest journey into the leftfield from the Oxford group is partly provoked by first listens of Let England Shake, which surfaced just four days before The King of Limbs. It is in many ways the other side of the coin: angry, evocative, political. It is radical in meaning if not in style. It boasts memorable songs with choruses and verses and everything. In short, it’s not background music, because it demands attention.
As a die-hard Radiohead fan that’s what I’d like to see from Yorke. A full-on artistic assault, rather than an interesting-sounding retreat. He’s obviously an engaged, informed, sceptical guy, and it’s time he channelled more of this energy into Radiohead.