Friday, May 01, 2009

The Radiohead Model, Chapter 5: The Gloaming

http://sleevage.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/09/hailtothe_theif.jpg


*MP3: Radiohead - "There There"
*MP3: Radiohead - "2+2=5"
*MP3: Radiohead - "A Wolf At The Door"

The word “gloaming” has its roots in the Old English word “gloming,” both which refer to the time in the evening when the sun has just passed over the horizon, creating the soft glow of twilight just after the time which photographers know as the magic hour. Its roots lie in the Dark Ages, when much of the Western world lay balanced between light and darkness, enlightenment and utter stagnation. The Gloaming became known as the time when strange and otherworldly things would begin to occur on the earth before the black of night. It was a superstitious word for superstitious people, but it would survive into the modern era and eventually become the subtitle for Radiohead's sixth album, principally known as "Hail to the Thief."

By 2003, Radiohead had seen the blaze of day in the glorious sunshine of their youth. In the space of ten years, they had ascended to a height known by few in the world of popular music, following a golden career arc from assimilating naiveté to elite sophistication (think The Beatles and the 1960s). In the early days of the 21st Century, the double punch of "OK Computer" and Kid A/Amnesiac was already viewed as a watershed moment. But the making of these albums had driven the band almost to the point of implosion. In their drive to create meaningful music, they had become more collaborative architects than a band. Never again, they vowed.

Radiohead were done, at least in practice, with being difficult.

And so in 2002, the band picked up their guitars again and began rehearsing the songs which they would eventually record in a Los Angeles studio in under two weeks. In form, "Hail to the Thief" was a looser amalgamation of many of the ideas the band had worked on throughout their entire history, with the ripping and clanging guitars that began their career rejoining the band's more recent penchant for electronica. The album featured the band's first extensive use of laptop on many songs, and drummer Phil Selway seemed to be a full-time member again. Producer Nigel Godrich had effectively become yet another member of the band, giving the new collection of songs a clean and polished edge. Resident artist Stanley Donwood produced yet another of his gallery-caliber oil-on-canvases for the elaborate jewel case packaging. Rehearsed, recorded, mastered, and packaged in a year, it was the easiest time Radiohead had making an album since "Pablo Honey."

First leaked to the Internet, the album was released in June of 2003 to generous album sales and critical acclaim, although there was the sense among many that the band was not due its usual round of lavish praise. By the release of "Hail to the Thief," Radiohead albums had become epochal events in music. "OK Computer" and "Kid A" had taught listeners that this was a band whose every release would be uncompromising, essential, another strong push against the envelope in terms of sonic fidelity and imagination. Shockingly, "Hail to the Thief" seemed to tread those albums' water. Everything sounded fine, some of it even gorgeous, but that was precisely the problem. It wasn't a total masterpiece. To many, it was "Kid A" on autopilot. To many more, including the band itself, "Hail to the Thief" wasn't up to standard.

Of course, that standard was very high, perhaps impossibly high. But everything about the album seemed to have the ring of self-knowing pastiche. Every song title was given a parenthetical subtitle, as if to give added bloat to a 14-track album from a band recently known for leaner LPs. Song titles like “We Suck Young Blood” and “A Punch Up at a Wedding” seem campy and satirical, as if the band is making fun of itself. The album is cynical and dark, even by Radiohead standards, and though Thom Yorke's vibrato is allowed space again, it sometimes sounds tired and flat against the music.

It was rumored that Radiohead had rushed the album, their sixth and final with EMI, to get out of a record contract with which they were no longer happy. A more likely explanation is marriage, kids, and life itself. The men of Radiohead were in their mid 30s. They had given everything of themselves to the band and to each other for almost two decades. Perhaps, even as the world Thom Yorke so manically predicted began to form around them, it was time for Radiohead to settle into it. After touring behind Hail to the Thief, the band adjourned for a much needed hiatus. As the giant slept, Hail to the Thief would gain the reputation as one if its lesser efforts. With no record contract and few musical prospects, Radiohead was finally in limbo.

Thom Yorke had said that "Hail to the Thief" was an album about entering a modern dark age under a flag of ignorance. But there was still the album's mysterious subtitle, The Gloaming, which also relates to the Old English word 'glowan', referring to the actual glow of dusk itself, revealing new colors and deeper hues in the earth and sky. Almost like the sudden appearance of rainbows.

The Radiohead Model, Chapter 4

(Erik Martz/Ian Anderson)

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