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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2001

I once was lost, but now I'm found

How amazing tech saved a wretch like Thom Yorke

Radiohead's ascent to superstardom presents an interesting paradox. The English quintet's talent for creating infectiously melancholy pop was undermined by a clear ambivalence toward the value of such a talent. "This is our new song," singer-lyricist Thom Yorke sang in 1995, "Just like the last one/A total waste of time."

Thom Yorke and Radiohead make music at the Yokohama Arena.

Disparaging rock careerism is no longer equated with authenticity. Even "indie cred" -- the belief that as long as an artist pledges to never sign with a major label, that artist remains true to the game -- doesn't mean anything now that independent labels have proven they are just as capable of producing schlock (e.g., The Promise Ring and most other "emocore" bands) as the big boys are.

Indie cred, in fact, can be seen as an advanced manifestation of rock careerism, or, at least, an offshoot. Take the artistic self-doubt that supposedly contributed to Kurt Cobain's suicide. Nirvana's lead singer despaired over the notion that people might actually think his music was not genuine, that it was calculated to sell and sound good on the radio. U2 has essentially fashioned an entire career out of trying not to sound as if they are fashioning a career. It wasn't until last year, when they stopped fooling themselves about their responsibilities, that they produced their best album ever.

But Yorke's pop alienation reaches further, beyond skepticism about the value of entertainment. His acute anxiety stems from an existence that has been shaped by entertainment, not to mention the technology that serves it. What you hear on the first three Radiohead albums is the voice of a self-conscious nowhere man who can't experience anything. "I wish I wish I wish something would happen," he whines on "The Bends," understanding that everything has already happened. Nothing will ever feel new, except maybe death.

Despite Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien's imaginative guitar work and, especially on 1997's "OK Computer," the complex rhythmic interplay between bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, the earlier songs were claustrophobic and precious. The listener was forced to occupy the same psychic space that Yorke occupied, and there wasn't enough room in there for two.

Last year's "Kid A" turned things around. The music was opened up, both structurally and melodically, as Yorke surrendered to the ghost in the machine, freeing his mind and letting his songwriting muse follow. Previously, his song titles were dour and depressed ("Sulk," "Let Down," "I Can't"). On "Kid A," they revealed a ready acceptance of the modern world: "Everything in Its Right Place," as the opening cut puts it. The album's centerpiece is a song titled "Optimistic."

"Kid A's" subtitle could have been "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My OK Computer," though "love" may be too strong a word. It's more about sensations than emotions. "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon," goes one of the lines in "Everything," a statement that registers zilch in the emotional resonance department but scores high in terms of sensory impact.

Whereas technology was once bad because it prevented real engagement with the world, Radiohead now embraced it for exactly the same reason. Of course, there's something basically antisocial about keeping the world at arm's length, but it's not as if people aren't attracted to the idea of emotional isolation. It's just that it isn't normally celebrated as beautifully and openly as it is on "Kid A." Even misanthropy can be enjoyable, as it seems to be on the impossibly beautiful "Knives Out," which appeared on the group's latest album, "Amnesiac," recorded during the same sessions that produced "Kid A."

Many of the people who appreciated the first three albums because of their classic popcraft and equally classic youthful alienation find Yorke's new outlook not only boring but repugnant. Nick Hornby, in The New Yorker, wrote, "['Kid A'] is morbid proof that this sort of self-indulgence results in a weird kind of anonymity, rather than something distinctive and original."

What Hornby doesn't get is that anonymity can be distinctive and original. The brilliance of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" is the way they avoid the familiar specifics of pop and yet deliver the same kind of visceral excitement. Melodies, rhythms, lyrical motifs never get to the point. Everything is just slightly out of reach.

As is Yorke himself. He's a small guy, and looked even smaller on stage at the band's Yokohama Arena concert on Oct. 3. Dressed in a preppy check shirt and shapeless jeans, the singer's frail frame was easily overwhelmed by the blue lights and fog. What came through was the equally frail, stressed-out voice.

This projection of relative insignificance was emphasized by the large video screens, which are usually installed in arenas to show the people in the bad seats what they came to hear. A series of small cameras had been placed inconspicuously all over the stage, pointing at the different band members. The images they caught, all in black-and-white, were mostly closeups, but the angles were oblique, just like the music. Yorke's camera caught the bottom of his chin and his mike stand. When he played piano, the camera looked straight down onto the top of his head. What the audience saw was a thatch of hair with a nose sticking out of it. He was never all there.

However, the songs, uncluttered by anything that could be deemed an egotistical flourish, came through with startling force. Both "The National Anthem" and "Knives Out" featured three guitars, each of which had its own thematic and textural agenda. The quieter songs were particularly effective, especially the lullaby-like "No Surprises," with its dreamy glockenspiel runs, and "Exit Music," which was so still and limpid that you could practically hear the tendons in Yorke's fret hand relax.

Radiohead has been accused of placing ideas ahead of craft, and "Limbo," with its multiple, overlapping time signatures, didn't make sonic sense in a live setting. (They had to start the song twice.) Nevertheless, it was the similarly obtuse songs that drew the most enthusiastic responses from the crowd, especially the manic nursery rhyme "Idioteque," which featured a mad, spastic dance by Yorke while Greenwood and O'Brien writhed on the floor playing with their effects boxes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the concert was how open the audience was to the group's experimental bent. The songs were distinct and sounded much the same as they do on record, but no effort was made to rock the crowd. The excitement was in the interaction, the way the band members worked together to form certain sounds, get certain ideas across. Much of what they did could have been called avant-garde. The sold-out arena responded with genuine awe, and nobody screamed for hits (the band didn't play "Creep"). The crowd wanted to be amazed.

I think that's what Radiohead wanted, too. They have made their peace with the Entertainment God and allowed technology to have its way with them. Freed from the effort of trying hard not to act like rock musicians, they simply become musicians. During the whirling, madcap coda to "Everything," all the components eventually became embedded on a series of loops. The group didn't have to play any more and joined the audience in clapping and dancing. Yorke stood at the stage's front and happily lip-synced his own vocals. He had found himself at last.

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