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There are a lot of bits in this node about the album's significance and theme, but nobody has said much about the music! Musically, this album marked the point where Radiohead reached artistic maturity. They completely deconstruct the sound established on The Bends, while at the same time managing to produce an album of songs that are both complete in themselves and fit into a larger scheme encompassing the album.

  1. Airbag (4:44)
    The album begins with distorted guitar riffs and irregular drumming. Thom Yorke's voice enters and soon a textured soundscape is created. Unlike the compositions on The Bends, though, it doesn't seem to be "busy". Evidence of texture only appears after repeated listenings. Towards the end of the song the texture clears up and a lone distorted guitar plays, soon accompanied by subtle electronics. The song ends in a vaguely discordant fadeout segueing into the next song.
  2. Paranoid Android (6:23)
    Legend has that this song was created from scraps of songs that the band didn't know how to use. The multiple mood shifts in the song reinforce this explanation. The first part is a calm, driving song which is in the same musical vein as Street Spirit (Fade Out), only fuller and brighter. This continues for about two and a half minutes until distorted guitars burst in and a heavy electric interlude about a minute in length occurs. After that, it fades into a slow, sad melodic section which becomes more and more incoherent until a point where the distorted electric guitars burst in again and reprise their noisy theatrics, which end abruptly.
  3. Subterranean Homesick Alien (4:27)
    A much simpler song than the last two, the verses of this song marry an atmospheric, electronic soundscape with calm, despairing vocals. The chorus features clanging guitars and much rougher vocals. The tone of the verses very much foreshadows the dreamy first half of Kid A.
  4. Exit Music (For a Film) (4:24)
    The opening of this enigmatic song is simply a single acoustic guitar, Thom's vocals, and a reverb effect. Eerie noises filter in as the song progresses, until the drums and fuzz bass suddenly take over the song, rapidly building to a climax. The song then 'disintegrates' into silence.
  5. Let Down (4:59)
    The bright opening of Let Down comes through clear as a bell after the murky haze of Exit Music. The song again proceeds in stripped-down-Bends fashion, with a calm, careful progression through fields of shimmering guitars and subtle rhythms. Like most Radiohead songs, it builds to a climax, or rather, two climaxes, a false climax almost halfway through the song and a true climax later on. The music is far too cheerful for the lyrics, but this discordance works quite splendidly.
  6. Karma Police (4:21)
    The dynamic of the first half of this song is created by an alternation between the full band and an acoustic piano/acoustic guitar combo. In the second half of the song, the drums and a driving bass line take over, though the piano still shines through for colour. At the end, distorted noise takes over and then 'collapses' to a finish.
  7. Fitter Happier (1:57)
    This song forms a musical gap between the drive of Karma Police and the clatter of Electioneering.
  8. Electioneering (3:50)
    The opening of Electioneering is a loud wakeup call after the somnolence of Fitter Happier. The song is buoyed by the interplay of a jangly, R.E.M.-ish riff, played with more menace and distortion than Peter Buck ever uses, and a fuzzy, chromatic foreground riff. These two elements are always at odds with each other, making this song one of the tensest that Radiohead ever played. Two thirds of the way through, an interlude of distortion interrupts but does not release the tension. The song ends with a messy clamour that has very little precedent in Radiohead's repertoire.
  9. Climbing Up the Walls (4:45)
    A spooky, claustrophobic song, driven by distorted and ringing, echoey drumming. The singing in this song passed through an effects pedal, producing a strange effect that is difficult to describe. Guitars join in as the song progresses. An instrumental break occurs at the end with creepy-sounding solos and strings, and then the end comes quickly.
  10. No Surprises (3:48)
    Again a contrast, as with Exit Music and Let Down; the warm opening of No Surprises recalls Let Down in style. The song continues in this style, but remaining fairly simple while Let Down became much more complicated. The lyrics keep the song dark, as with Let Down and Street Spirit, seeming a suicide lament until, after an extended instrumental break, there is a last minute reconsideration.
  11. Lucky (4:19)
    Beginning with soft siren-like sounds, this song presents the impression of the darkness of a clear night. Soaring guitar and vocal lines propel this gem of a song, which maintains its reserved, careful pace throughout.
  12. The Tourist (5:24)
    This restrained coda reflects upon the pace of the modern world, exhorting the listener to slow down. The usual texture underlies the seeming simplicity of the song, though. The music follows the lyrics's instruction to slow down, becoming more laid back as the song proceeds.
This is one of my favourite albums, and was the first rock album that I actually bought. It is not perfect, but it is very close.
(CC)
This writeup is copyright 2003 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .