Tuesday, September 29, 2009

18. Radiohead "Pyramid Song" (2001)

Here's the conventional wisdom about Radiohead in the 2000s:
  1. Coming off of the creative apex of their twin guitar-rock masterpieces of the 1990s, The Bends and OK Computer, but especially the latter, the band was trapped by their own critical acclaim. Any subsequent release would have been seen as a retreat, or at least a disappointment.
  2. Instead of (uselessly) trying to top themselves, they changed the rules of the game and redefined the idea of rock music, by fully embracing electronica.
  3. Kid A is a masterpiece, precisely because it is still so polarizing. Musically, it was a shocking departure for the band. Fans who were unable to accept what Radiohead was trying to accomplish, did not truly "get" the band's art and genius.
  4. By following Kid A with the equally insular Amnesiac, Radiohead cemented their status as uncompromising artists.
  5. Their last two releases, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, while great, were a capitulation to the fans who did not understand the genius of Kid A (and Amnesiac), but who preferred (the genius of) The Bends and OK Computer.
I submit that this standard story is bullshit. My evidence is "Pyramid Song."

The fallacy here lies in the fact that it was Radiohead's artistic departure that was the problem, not the actual quality of their output. It is assumed that every song on Kid A and Amnesiac were genius, but that detractors just weren't sophisticated enough to enjoy them. Yet the songs from that era that fans regularly mention -- "Idiotique," "Optimistic," "Knives Out," "You and Whose Army," and "Pyramid Song" -- most resemble the band's more accessible music, by actually being high quality. The songs that contribute to the notion that Radiohead's music was difficult (but great) -- "Treefingers," "Kid A," "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," "Hunting Bears," and "Dollars & Cents" -- are rarely cited as examples of the band's genius. That's because they are not good songs.

To mix my metaphors: the emperor is naked, but he is also not all he's cracked up to be.

Radiohead decided to split their sessions following OK Computer into two separate albums, and that was their big mistake. There is enough genuinely good material on Kid A and Amnesiac to make one really excellent album. Instead, Radiohead released two mixed albums, a maddening decision.

Take "Pyramid Song," a song gorgeous even by the band's impossible standards. Its essential elements are vintage Radiohead: simple piano chords, swooning strings, syncopated percussion, and a beautiful vocal by Thom Yorke. Above it all hangs a canopy of unobtrusive electronic sounds that adds to the spaciness of the sci-fi lyric. Everything in its right place. On Amnesiac, "Pyramid Song" is followed by the aforementioned (and unfortunately-titled) "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," a mediocre song by any standard. Should the latter's proximity to the greatness of the former rub off on it? I don't think so.

Radiohead has always been excellent at being Radiohead. But excellence should not blind us from recognizing subpar material. The worst Beatles song is not better than the best Maroon 5 song, because the Beatles made better music on whole. Great music isn't necessarily the music a great band makes. Thus, a tautology: "Pyramid Song" is great, because it is great. Not because it's a Radiohead song.

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