Monday, October 13, 2008

Somewhere over this Rainbow

About once a year I get obsessed with an album. And by that I mean I have to listen to it at least once a day. And then I start really listening hard and trying to hear the lyrics, and then I start memorizing lyrics and looking up the ones I can't quite get on the Web. Then I start even listening to the songs I originally didn't like.

Last year it was Silversun Pickups. This year it's Radiohead's In Rainbows. The albums that get under my skin are usually ones that challenge me. Silversun Pickups is a raucous rock band. Radiohead of course is experimental, alternative, sometimes abstruse. I have never really liked an entire Radiohead album until this one.

The melodies are intoxicating, the rhythms complex. Listen to the cymbal and piano at the end of Videotape. It's like they are characters talking to each other. Yorke's voice is sweet and high and you can see how they've influenced Coldplay and a thousand other commercial bands. I'm not saying anything particularly insightful here. Radiohead is a cult and there are reams written about them. But I encourage you to buy this album and study it. My favorite song is Jigsaw Falling into Place. These lyrics about the hopefullness of picking someone up in a bar, before you both get too drunk, is sublime in its subtlety:

Jigsaw Falling into Place

Just as you take my hand
Just as you write my number down
Just as the drinks arrive
Just as they play your favourite song
As your bad day disappears
No longer wound up like a spring
Before you've had too much
Come back in focus again

The walls are bending shape
You got a Cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission

Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you're comatose

Before you run away from me
Before you're lost between the notes
The beat goes round and round
The beat goes round and round

I never really got there
I just pretended that I had
Words are blunt instruments
Words are sawn off shotguns

Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out

Before you run away from me
Before you're lost between the notes
Just as you take the mic
Just as you dance, dance, dance

A Jigsaw falling into place
So there is nothing to explain
You eye each other as you pass
She looks back and you look back
Not just once
and not just twice
Wish away your nightmare
Wish away the nightmare
You got the light you can feel it on your back
[A light,] you can feel it on your back
Your jigsaw falling into place

Other albums I've been obsessed with in the past decade or so: Rufus Wainwright's self-titled first album, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's album, Painted from Memory, Chakha Khan's album of standards with the London Symphony Orchestra, Classikhan, Beth Orton's Without Reservation, The Light in the Piazza soundtrack, Joni Mitchell's Hejira.

And now I will tell you a funny Radiohead story. When I was 39 I was having a mid-life crisis, dating a 23 year old named Charlie. I don't think Charlie would mind if I said he was all of these things: brilliant, sexy, troubled. He liked to drink a lot and then listen to Radiohead at loud volumes. I would wait for him to lose interest and pay attention to me, but it was like he was in another world. We had quite an age difference and our tastes in music had overlaps, but our favorite stuff was really far apart--or was it? Once we went to Yosemite and we agreed that we would alternate choosing CDs, but we would bring stuff we wanted to expose the other to. He brought Radiohead, and I brought Joni Mitchell and Sondheim. Too funny. Charlie had some musical sophistication. He encouraged me to remember my high school band music theory and listen to the time signatures of the Radiohead songs. A waltz is 3/4 time, for example. You can't figure it out with Radiohead. It's all over the map, which is what makes it cerebral and dynamic (click on the image above). And I will say he really got the Joni, and I turned him on to other stuff too, like Rufus Wainwright. We broke up after a short time, and he later moved to New York, but we've kept in touch, and I knew I had raised him well when Charlie, now thirty or thirty-one, told me excitedly recently that he had seen Rufus doing his full length re-creation of the famous Judy Garland concert at Radio City Music Hall. And now he will be happy to hear I'm finally young enough to appreciate Radiohead.