I should probably start this review by saying that my favorite Radiohead album is Pablo Honey. There, I said it, and I’ve listened to them all. I’m noI should probably start this review by saying that my favorite Radiohead album is Pablo Honey. There, I said it, and I’ve listened to them all. I’m no musicologist, and unlike many Radiohead fans (including one particularly obnoxious ex-girlfriend) I don’t pretend to be one. I also liked The Bends, and to an extent I also like OK Computer, though I see it as a marked shift for the band from making music that I enjoy, to making music that I appreciate (and, to be fair, periodically enjoy). The primary draw for me has always been their ability to rock out convincingly with that three-guitar attack, and I think Thom Yorke’s voice is at its best when he stops whispering and starts shouting. (Sorry, had to throw that in.)
I also read these 33 1/3/s ravenously, and I honestly thought that, despite the reviews, this volume might be elucidating. I wanted Dai Griffiths, a musicologist, to show me why this is a Very Important Album. Alas, he doesn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. The analysis of the album, when he finally – on page 47 of 116 – gets to it, is mind-numbingly soulless, filled with artspeak and vague, unsubstantiated allusions and connections that place Radiohead alongside classical composers like Beethoven and Brahms, folkies like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, and writers like Philip Larkin and Matthew Arnold. The stuff he writes on Radiohead ends up reading like a cacophony of everything I’ve been putting up with from my Radiohead-savant friends for the last fifteen years, with summations like this: “The way the music works out means that the song ends on a questioning dominant chord, an ‘imperfect cadence’ as the theory exams used to put it.” Griffiths seems to have a knee-jerk aversion to anything emotionally engaging (he dismisses “Let Down,” perhaps the most overtly emotive song in the collection), and also has a tendency toward bean-counting, coming up with a lot of tables, formulas, and equations that he rarely substantiates with overt analysis; this kind of stuff I tended to skim over, and I’m not a skimmer.
But about pages 1-47, the stuff that’s not specifically about Radiohead. I’ve seen quite a few reviewers complain that he takes too long in getting to the album itself, and I can understand that frustration. But I personally think that first 47-page chapter, about the development of the album as a form, from the time it was an actual “album” of 78s, to its battle with the 45 single, to the notion of the two-sided album, and finally to the notion of the CD (read: continuous play) album of which he posits OK Computer as a shining example, is not only the most important part of the book, but it actually is a wonderful opus for the entire 33 1/3 series of books celebrating the record album. Also, the final 20 pages, in which he uses the pretext of figuring the future of OK Computer in the new media landscape as an excuse to decry the separation of musician and music critic, are also pretty engaging, though he gets a bit over-the-top in his advocacy of sheet music and notation, stating, “There’s still every need to learn how to read music: not being able to do so is another indication of the lazy, slobby aspect of computer- and tv- centered life, which also plays straight into the hands of scummy, dumbing-down capitalists,” less than a page after freely admitting that Thom Yorke doesn’t know how to read music. His anti-corporate argument (which I’m always open to), in which he aligns the very idea of a “classic album” with an industry that’s systematically devalued black and female singers, is a powerful coda. In other words, this book about Radiohead is at its best, and by that I mean most bearable, when its author isn’t writing about Radiohead. ...more
I love, love, love Barthes’ ability to use formal, critical terms like “representation” and “cosmology” in such a graceful, artistic way. I also loveI love, love, love Barthes’ ability to use formal, critical terms like “representation” and “cosmology” in such a graceful, artistic way. I also love the way he writes about whatever he happens to be reading or watching on TV or at the movies at any given time — Einstein, professional wrestling, dishonest criticism, toy advertisements — making each essay seem simultaneously like a primary historical document and a universal statement on humanity. The long essay “Myth Today” at the end is a bit, well, long, but each of the short pieces is a gem....more