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Radiohead reach for a strange new music. Watching them perform, I wondered how the language of criticism, or any talk at all really, could articulate what they do.
I would not be the first to fear that, global warming notwithstanding, the big chill has been on for quite some time in terms of how computers, social networking, chat facilities and a quickened, illusory intimacy with anything and everything leaves us distanced and disconnected from one another.
Radiohead seem to meet this crisis head on. The loneliness of the information age is really their music. It’s what they play. Their detractors – and there are many – regard the group as insufferably pretentious. Fans turned into fanatics by a show of this scope probably won’t help this perception.
Even to identify individual songs in their set feels forced; there is such a mass to their sound, a boundless, psychedelic quality – although they have many great songs and distinct moments, no question. There are the beats and echo snap of ‘Lotus Flower’ and a pony-tailed Thom Yorke doing his spaghetti dance moves. Then there are the stuttering drums and surface-splashing keyboards of ‘Bloom’, with Yorke’s yearning, lost-in-space soprano: “Open your mouth wide / the universal sigh.”
The band was on – as was the crowd. In an aquarium of punishing beats (two drummers as well as samples), stomach-shaking bass notes and layer upon layer of noise, it was sometimes the fragility that stood out: ‘Separator’, ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’ and ‘Give Up the Ghost’ each had moods so pretty, fleeting and open, you instantly felt something akin to nostalgia or sadness, as if whatever you were hearing was on the cusp of extinction.
The band’s lighting and stage designer, Andi Watson, deserves an award for integrating his work into Radiohead’s aesthetic so perfectly. Massive LED back-screens pulsed hot and cool in pixilated blues and oranges. A dozen video screens hung like a child’s mobile over the stage, using efflorescent, fragmentary shots of the musicians in action (faces, feet, drumsticks) to create a broken-mirror effect.
When those video screens dropped during the encore to create a low, burning white ceiling for ‘15 Step’, the compressed power of the band was unquestionable, the moment atomic as Jonny Greenwood’s lead guitar asserted a cool beauty. Then came a fluffed stab at ‘Idioteque’. Something was going wrong on the drums and more especially with Colin Greenwood’s keyboards. Yorke appeared to berate Greenwood, who showed him a jammed note as the band hovered. It cut no ice with Yorke and he eventually called the song off entirely, saying, “Sorry, we fucked up. It happens,” before walking off stage. It was no way to end, and yet it was a great way to end. I saw the future and it turned out to be human after all.