Ray of Light

Writing of the spectral presences of history, cultural critic Walter Benjamin once noted his fascination with styles that had just passed, restaurants that had just gone out of fashion, and carried with them the echoes of glories now gone. Decades after Benjamin died, film director John Huston would put it slightly differently, in an interview just before his own death: "It's as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it."

I take comfort in those thoughts, as this blog is often slightly behind in commenting on the hip films, television shows, and pop music of its day. Which means I didn't get around to really listening to the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows, until this weekend, through the headphones of an I-pod, on a plane departing from that most strangely historical of cities, Philadelphia (a town which, if you were to judge from its statues and paraphenalia, worships two very different figures from America's past: Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa). But perhaps this is appropriate, since In Rainbows feels like an album adrift in time, at once nostalgic and contemplative on the one hand, and fiercely contemporary on the other. Its floating textures embody a conception of production and history that Robert Ray notes in his new book, The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (Ray is writing about the film Grand Hotel, and doing so through a comparison with the Moby album 18 ):

To what extent have classic Hollywood movies now become such intermittent broadcasts-- mysterious, incomplete, ghostly-- that we only partially understand? The movies, of course, result from fragments, whose careful sequencing conceals that fact. Occasionally, however, static comes through in the signal (Griffith's wind in the trees, On The Waterfront's dropped glove), and at that moment, we recognize not only the message, but also the act of transmission itself...The crucial lesson of cybernetics remains its refusal of the distinction between noise and information. For film studies, this idea suggests that the apparently marginal (Barthes's "the filmic," the Cahiers' mise-en-scene), the way the information is conveyed, becomes the information itself.

After starting with two brilliant albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, Radiohead crafted a fascinating, tortured concept album with OK Computer, then spent the next decade (as Nick Hornby rightly wrote in the New Yorker) distancing themselves from their pop gifts. This resulted in music tangled and dissonant (Kid A), ghostly (Amnesiac), and occasionally guitar-driven (Hail To The Thief). Their ambition and desire to stretch was admirable, but it often felt more like an abstract argument about pop music than anything you could hear in the music; they were providing the exegesis without the text itself.

In Rainbows reverses that equation, burying the band's theses under a blanket of falsetto voices, gentle acoustic guitars and cymbals, and lush string sections. The results sound like the Beatles if they were led by Antonio Carlos Jobim instead of Lennon and McCartney. Words float in and out, barely legible, relying more on timbre to convey their meaning. The production style oscillates between crystal clarity and low-fi, basement tapes recordings. There are lots of clicking noises, quietly fuzzy guitar feedback, and subtle electronic effects.

In other words, the whole thing is really, really cool, and easily the band's best album since The Bends. It came to us in that most modern and cutting-edge way-- as a free Internet download-- but it feels like an ancient recording sent to Earth from Saturn several decades ago, that's only just reaching us now. It's alien and haunting; in Benjaminian terms, it's a spectral kind of pop, and its echoes are going to be wandering in my brain for some time.


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