Smoke, Mirrors and Rainbows

Overcoming chronic Radiohead fatigue

Dear Radiohead,

It pains me to say this, but I'm afraid that, unlike several thousand of my fellow Houstonians, as well as people from all over Southeast and Central Texas, I won't be attending your concert this Saturday in The Woodlands. Let me explain why.

Thom, I've got something to tell you. This is our last long walk on the beach together. Probably.
Colin Greenwood
Thom, I've got something to tell you. This is our last long walk on the beach together. Probably.

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Radiohead plays Saturday, May 17, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, 281-363-3300. It's way sold out...take your chances online.

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You had to know this was coming. Until recently, as a full-time member of the music press, it was my sworn duty to report on your every note, fart and sneeze. As I was told, the Internet is actually a living organism that draws its nourishment from discreetly distributed Radiohead information. Without constant feeding, it will crash, and then all those people who think the Net is this magical wellspring of infinite music will be forced to fend for themselves.

Not really. But it sure seems like it sometimes.

I'm not even mad at you for that whole pay-what-you-will Ponzi scheme you cooked up for the online-only release of In Rainbows last fall. From what I understand, you made out pretty well, even though about half the people who downloaded it are such big fans they chose not to pay a cent. You had the last laugh when you released the same set of songs a few months later on CD, and a bunch of those same people paid for it again (or for the first time). Many others opted to pay even more — much more — for the two-disc, 180-gram vinyl box set in elaborate ­packaging.

And, all right, I admit it, if you were playing for free at Miller Outdoor Theatre, or even at Toyota Center, and you saw fit to let bygones be bygones and put me on the guest list, I'd probably suck it up and go. Why not? Maybe you'd change my mind. Again. On the other hand, if anything on In Rainbows excited me nearly as much as "Exit Music (For a Film)" and "Just," or even "Optimistic" and "National Anthem," I'd have no problem driving to The Woodlands and paying for a ticket. But I've seen you play those songs live already, and once was plenty. Thus I think it's best you and I part company, amicably but firmly.

To borrow a phrase from a recently popular best-seller, I'm just not that into you anymore. But maybe, Radiohead, you and I never had a real relationship to begin with. Granted, we flirted pretty heavy when I saw you and Belly at the Terrace in Austin in 1993, and we had a pretty torrid fling in late summer 2000, when Kid A anticipation was building and I was listening to either The Bends or OK Computer pretty much every day.

But that autumn, everything changed. There was nothing wrong with Kid A itself — despite its decidedly less guitar-centric template, I think it holds together as well as either of its predecessors, and the music is often just as stirring. Your great misfortune, through no immediate fault of your own, was that Kid A's release coincided with the shadowy beginnings of what would soon be known as the blogosphere.

Lighting the fuse were ink-and-paper publications like England's Q and America's own Spin, who, I'm afraid, quickly came to regard you the same way Rolling Stone does, say, Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger. Soon enough the Internet was awash in enough fawning accounts of your every thought, word and deed that even servers built to handle heavy porn traffic were taxed to their breaking points.

Then Kid A debuted at No. 1, Amnesiac No. 2, and things got even more confusing. It was like I didn't even know you ­anymore.

Yes, I understand that your wowing intellectuals while shoring up your arena-size fan base echoed previous commercial coups by art-crowd favorites such as David Bowie and Roxy Music. But those resulted from accidental collisions with the zeitgeist ("Space Oddity," "More Than This"), or outright co-opting of commercial aesthetics ("Fame"). Soon enough, Bowie and Roxy both nonchalantly resumed their eccentric ways.

On the other hand, Radiohead, you simply coasted. Hail to the Thief (2003) was a marginally coherent pastiche of your previous two albums, plus a few more guitars and cryptic anti-Bush rhetoric that now feels as dated as Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz. Yet critics and fans, terrified of being cast out of this smug fraternity that allowed them to feel superior to the ­Nickelback-worshipping hordes while indulging in exactly the same sort of lighter-waving idolatry, let it slide. Another hit album.

Now that brings us to In Rainbows, your obvious, if exceptionally savvy, retrenchment into what makes Radiohead Radiohead: clangorous dissonance, sterile electronics, shockingly tender melodies. Gut-level populist pop songs disguised in avant-garde clothing — no more, no less.

And so the hype surrounding Rainbows' unique release seems like sleight of hand meant to obscure the fact that you, the band almost universally hailed as the most innovative of our generation, have run out of new ideas — and know it. Ranking it (only) No. 6 among 2007's best LPs, even Spin sighs that Rainbows "offers a tremendous exhale after four albums of knotty sonic exploration."

Some of us just aren't biting this time around, Radiohead. But you understand. You do seem like smart fellows, after all. Have a good show, lads. Maybe I'll catch you next time.

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