Radiohead have been facing the same critics for more than two decades now. They are whiney, depressing broadsheet-whores, chin-stroking purveyors of ‘dadstep’, who have come to make music for the head instead of the heart. To go further, a friend of mine once told me that he thought Radiohead were too ‘thinky’. Most of these sounds were muffled by 2007’s In Rainbows, an album widely regarded as the band’s warmest to date, perhaps in large part due to the relocation of the electronics to the background.
After last year’s The King of Limbs, however, these people cleared their throats, and raised their voices. As ever, those with the least to say spoke the loudest, and the difficult cousin to In Rainbows was dismissed by a certain corner of the fanbase as more pseudo-intellectual rubbish, without being given its proper due. Yet if there was anyone in Manchester tonight who bought their ticket hoping to hear The Bends mark two, they would have been sat on the last train home, impatiently scrolling through their iPods to finally give The King of Limbs another chance. This stuff sounds absolutely incredible live.
‘Lotus Flower’ kicks things off, somehow bigger than on record – it was less swaying, less delicate, rather rowdier and boldly tougher. Radiohead have been touring with two drummers for the past year, and the addition of Clive Deamer (most famous for his time with Portishead) may have something to do with this new and distinctive live sound. He really seems to add something special to the group, a key part of a band with more energy now than at any other point during their 20 years together. In fact, the only way to describe this shift in style is a word I never thought I would be directing at Radiohead: they sound downright funky. This could be seen more than anywhere on ‘Good Morning Mr. Magpie’, with its tight, itchy rhythms and powerful, neurotic guitars, and on new song ‘Ful Stop’ – on which Thom Yorke sings “the truth will mess you up”, a sentiment so Yorkian it’s a wonder it has taken him this long to come up with it. Clive Deamer is rumoured to have been a part of the Nashville recording sessions that took place in June, so hopefully it’s only a matter of time until we see whether or not this sound can be captured in a studio.
Just how different the King of Limbs material sounded live is something of a recurring theme this evening. ‘Bloom’, which on record at times sounds deliberately impenetrable, is instilled with new life, and ‘Feral’ – a track I am forced to admit usually skipping through at home – is a highlight of the evening. It goes to show that, in reality, The King of Limbs is home to some of Radiohead’s best tunes. Yet the manner in which Radiohead choose to release their post-EMI material can’t help but encourage snap judgements. This was fine for In Rainbows, an inviting and occasionally poppy album, but The King of Limbs was dense – packed so tightly with ideas that it needed time. Instead, most reviewers have tended to quickly categorise Radiohead’s music into two folders: the good stuff, and the weird stuff. The comparisons with Kid A were endless, giving undue weight to the idea that all experimental music is the same. Tonight shows, perhaps more than could be achieved on record, that a third shift has taken place. If The Bends was the first, Kid A the second, Radiohead post-King of Limbs are once again making music that is innovative, challenging and, most of all, seriously exciting.
In an example in how to pull off an arena gig to perfection, the King of Limbs material was tempered by a generous helping of the hits (in so far as Radiohead have ever had a ‘hit’). ‘Airbag’ was the second song of the night, whilst ‘Planet Telex’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ both received huge cheers. A sizeable amount of In Rainbows has deservedly made it into the canon, with ‘Nude’ standing beautifully next to ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘Reckoner’ holding its own against ‘There There’, and ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ bringing the biggest sing-a-long moment of the night. Radiohead are a band truly at ease with themselves, and significantly, with their back catalogue. As I’m sure many big bands can testify, this is no small feat.
After an encore of ‘Give Up The Ghost’, with Thom and Jonny alone and acoustic on stage, Bjork’s ‘Unravel’, and an absolutely huge version of ‘Idioteque’, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an abandoned warehouse next to some hard-core techno, act as a prelude ‘Everything In Its Right Place’. The M.E.N. arena finally begins to empty, as people struggle to bend their knees on the stairs after standing up for so long. I would like to say that this was a very special gig, that I was one of the lucky few treated to Thom Yorke’s characteristic dance moves, but I can’t. What I feel tonight has been felt by countless others across the globe, as Radiohead again and again play shows as equally exceptional as this.
Accordingly, I am forced to say instead: Radiohead are a very special band. The musical landscape of the 21st century has been consistently shaped by them, and it looks set to remain that way. They have outlasted their peers by means of what is perhaps their greatest achievement: making looking forward cool again. No band of similar size exists with Radiohead’s drive, their energy to challenge themselves, and their ability to toy with our conceptions of what we think we like about music. They continue to be the one of the most most exciting, influential and original bands of the last twenty years. That they can still surprise me after so long is a testament to their talent.