by Michael Goldberg
Monday June 18, 2001
Radiohead: In The Forest As The Fire Burns
Esoteric? Non-Commercial? Then how come it's #1?
Radiohead's Amnesiac debuted last week at the top of the Gracenote Digital Top 10, a weekly chart that represents the CDs most played by people using their computer as a CD player while online. (It also debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart with sales of over 200,000 for the first week.)
I do some consulting work for Gracenote, and put together a weekly analysis of their chart just to lay all my cards on the table. So I've been observing the online listening habits of the millions over 24 million, according to Gracenote who fall into the company's info-gathering grid.
While I hesitate to generalize, I can say that those who listen to CDs with their computer's CD-ROM drive are young. Their world is rocked by Tool and Weezer, Korn and Eminem, Nirvana and Metallica and Guns N' Roses, not Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith or Eric Clapton (artists whose latest albums either didn't even show up on the chart, or briefly hovered near the bottom).
Their world is rocked by Radiohead.
Yeah, of course Radiohead's audience is young, you're thinking. Everyone knows that. Agreed. But you couldn't know whether the follow-up to an album a lot of critics and journalists thought was good but rather esoteric even, in some cases, marginal would be well received by "the fans."
The sense I've gotten from the media is that it's OK for artists who've had a hit album to go on to make one album that's their art piece, if you will. Springsteen did Nebraska. U2 did Pop. People are willing to put up with that for one album, or so conventional wisdom dictates. Then the artist is supposed to return to the center you know, get back to your roots, make an album that sounds a lot like the hit album.
In Springsteen's case, he came back to the center with Born in the U.S.A. and became a superstar. U2's comeback was All That You Can't Leave Behind, an album that's diminished somewhat in my world in the months since its release (I mean, The Joshua Tree it's not).
Radiohead Throw Out The Rule Book
Radiohead haven't played by the media's rules. They've followed Kid A with an equally demanding album, Amnesiac. Wait a minute. Demanding? Who am I trying to kid? There's nothing demanding about Amnesiac. If everyone were to be completely honest about it, the album is just a good, solid, often inspired, mostly brilliant rock album by an intelligent group of musicians who've been paying attention to the evolution of pop music, instead of pretending it's 1965, or even '78.
Strange sounds in pop songs aren't exactly pushing the artistic envelope in 2001. (I mean, the Beatles released "Revolution No. 9" in the late '60s.) Nor are samples, loops, programmed rhythms, treated vocals and even lyrics that don't tell you the whole story.
And guess what? The modern pop audience the kids who listen to their CDs on their computers think so too. In the wake of Kid A, with streaming versions of Amnesiac available online, the fans went to the record stores. They bought the new album, and then they went home and played it. More than any other CD. Thus it topped the Gracenote chart.
I can tell you that people I know, real people in their twenties and early thirties who are Radiohead fans, love Amnesiac, just as I do. We don't see it as some difficult, inaccessible work of art that we can appreciate but ... well, we'll leave on the shelf and listen to Coldplay instead. No way. We hear an awesome rock album that also happens to be art, and we want to play it over and over and over. 'Cause it's fuckin' good, that's why.
Radiohead speak to a new generation. I would guess that their frankness in expressing the anxiety and disconnection they feel in the modern world is something that, either consciously or subconsciously, their fans relate to. In a big way.
In describing the difference between Kid A and Amnesiac, Thom Yorke told interviewer Nick Kent: "Kid A was kind of like an electric shock. Amnesiac is more about being in the woods (laughs), in the countryside. I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid Awas all in the distance. The fires were all going on on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you're actually in the forest while the fire's happening."
A lot of us feel like we're in the forest, and that fire is burning closer and closer. Of course we can relate to Radiohead and Amnesiac.
And Then There's Tindersticks
The new album from Tindersticks, Can Out Love..., is a dark, moody masterpiece that's been playing over and over all day today. Singer/guitarist Stuart Staples reminds me of Tim Buckley and Nick Drake and Van Morrison let's get that right out of the way. The latest Tindersticks album is slow and plodding, with some songs at times reminding me of dreamy Curtis Mayfield (check out the title track with its wah-wah guitar, strings and horn section).
Staples sounds world-weary in the opening track, "Dying Slowly," as he sings: "So many squandered moments, so much wasted time... I've seen it all and it's all done/ I've been with everyone and no one/ ... This dying slowly/ It seems better than shooting myself."
Not recommended if you're feeling down. When you peer down Staples' tunnel, the darkness simply gives way to more darkness.