12 February 2008

Book review: OK Computer (331/3)

How long does an album have to be around before it becomes "timeless"? As Dai Griffiths points out in his 331/3 entry on Radiohead's OK Computer, the Beatles' music has lasted 50 years to Beethoven's 200, but the gap narrows proportionally as each year passes.

OK was probably admitted to the echelon of all-time-greats faster than any album I can remember, and it's still easy to see why. The performances are clearly those of a band at the peak of their creative powers. The lyrics are clear enough to convey an overarching theme, but still vague enough to allow for individual interpretation. The music is ambitious and complex, yet the band's reach never exceeds their grasp. There are no embarrassingly self-indulgent passages of prog pretentions; not a single note is wasted. The album is suffused with ideas and invention but, more than anything else, the band sounds confident. It sounds as though they knew they were crafting one for the canon even before they began recording.

This immediately-bestowed classic status is one of the primary themes of Griffiths's study of OK. The book was published in 2004, just seven years after the album's release; he probably wrote it in 2003. And yet its place in the pantheon was already firmly established, and hasn't evolved since. So what kind of classic album is it exactly?

Griffiths sets up this question, then tackles it by discussing different categories of classic albums (concept albums, double albums). He introduces the possibility of a CD album to be judged on its own merits, in terms of running time and continuity, in the post-vinyl era. He then discusses the ways in which long songs are used to pad out the times of CD albums, and lists the different categories of long songs (really slow songs, songs with a lot of verses). He concludes that OK is a great CD album, and that its songs have extended intros and outros in the fashion of the CD era. This is all the first chapter.

Look, Griffiths is my kind of guy. Anybody who mentions Dire Straits, Tori Amos, Pixies, Oasis, De La Soul, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Webb and disc 2 of British Bird Sounds on CD all in the space of a few pages, just to make a point about Radiohead, is weird enough for me. But too much of this book is just talking in circles. His grand point about OK being a CD album is undercut quite obviously by the placement of "Fitter, Happier" right in the middle, a track on which, by the way, Griffiths focuses as the album's key thematic song.

He spends the second third of the book breaking down each song by key(s), beats per minute, lengths of verses and choruses and other minutiae without ever really making much of a point. What makes this especially frustrating is that I've been saying for years that this is exactly what rock criticism needs.

Too many rock critics don't know an augmented seventh chord from a locrian scale, which is what separates their work from serious writing about jazz and classical. To write about non-pop genres, a writer is expected to understand at least the basics of music theory, and to recognise certain aspects of it in the music. This is why so much rock criticism focuses excessively on the lyrics, even when they're not especially important. And of course we have the great Lester Bangs to thank for the occasionally inspired, often insufferable school of rock critics who attempt to creatively reproduce the excitement of the performance itself, usually through onomatopoeia, run-on sentences and too many capital letters.

This is not to say that this sort of writing doesn't have it's place; some of it is terrific. But there remains a critical void awaiting someone to step in and fill it with technical, theory-based criticism of popular music. After all, if you think the musicians don't know this stuff you're kidding yourself.

And if any band's music cries out for this sort of analysis, it's Radiohead's. Their use of non-traditional modal structures and time signatures (even more so on the two albums that followed OK) makes their music ripe for fine-toothed dissection. Griffiths breaks down each song into obsessive charts showing lengths of intros, outros and instrumental breaks, and even maps out the key and tempo changes in "Paranoid Android", but fails to follow through with any substantive analysis. What could be a breakthrough study of an already much-pondered album instead collapses under the weight of its own unexamined raw data.

This makes the book all the more infuriating after one slogs through pages of fairly opaque, directionless ramblings only to find no real conclusion. Griffiths spends the third and final section speculating on OK's place in future history, its staying power, if you will. It's a decent enough read, but at this point I was exhausted. It's hard to imagine I would ever have said this about one of these little 100+ page tomelettes, but this one is actually too long.

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