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Monday, September 25, 2006

2006 June 29 - NY Times

A sullen crooner of beautiful anxieties
By Jon Pareles The New York Times

Published: June 29, 2006

NEW YORK Thom Yorke is a study in asymmetry. A small, wiry man in neatly patched blue jeans, gray T- shirt and dark blazer, he sits with wary courtesy for an interview in a midtown Manhattan hotel room that attempts a sleekly pretentious minimalism, "but on the cheap," he says with a snicker.

Yorke's coppery blond hair is cut at precisely unbalanced angles, and in his sharp, foxlike face his right eye is clearly larger than his left. His forehead occasionally creases above his left eyebrow, giving him a slightly conspiratorial look. Asymmetry also pervades the music he makes on his first solo album, "The Eraser" (XL records), and the music he has made for more than a decade with Radiohead, rock's most experimental Top 10 band.

Inner tension reigns in Radiohead songs, as the rhythms undermine rock's standard 4/4, melodies are assaulted by intrusive noise, and the sweet ache of Yorke's voice carries tidings of deep malaise. And now, because the band chose not to make a new recording deal after finishing its contract in 2003, Radiohead is rock's most coveted free agent.

As pop grows ever more fickle, Radiohead has held on to a huge following, large enough to make albums zoom to No.1 and devoted enough to plaster the Internet with Radiohead fan sites, blogs, song discussions and bootleg recordings. The band has held on to its fans not by polishing a formula but by regularly dismantling it: Each Radiohead album arrives from a new angle, with new conundrums.

Radiohead's members - Yorke, Phil Selway on drums, Colin Greenwood on bass, Ed O'Brien on guitar and Jonny Greenwood on guitars, keyboards and unlikely sounds - met when they were at a boys' school near Oxford, England. When they started Radiohead in the early 1990s, the songs adopted the Beatles-esque grandeur of Britpop but sabotaged it with sentiments like the one in "Creep," Radiohead's first hit, which has Yorke sullenly crooning, "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?"

Popularity only made the band's alienation more sweeping. In 1997 Radiohead unveiled the dystopian majesty of its first masterpiece, "OK Computer," full of dire thoughts about dehumanization. Then, instead of making a sequel, Radiohead disassembled its sound, supplanting guitars with keyboards and electronic cross-rhythms on the ominous, disorienting, fascinating "Kid A" and "Amnesiac." With "Hail to the Thief" in 2003 Radiohead brought the two strands back together, reintegrating rock guitars into its jagged electronic soundscapes.

The 21st-century Radiohead makes music of constant, sophisticated discord. With and without Radiohead, Yorke is a purveyor of beautiful anxieties.

"It annoys me how pretty my voice is," Yorke says. "That sounds incredibly immodest, but it annoys me how polite it can sound when perhaps what I'm singing is deeply acidic."

Radiohead's next album may not arrive for some time. "Hail to the Thief" fulfilled Radiohead's contract with EMI, and while companies large and small would be eager to sign the band, it has still not decided what to do next, staying in a commercial limbo that has been both liberating and unsettling. Radiohead is by far the world's most popular unsigned band. "Why would you want to sign a six-album deal with a business that is imploding?" Yorke says.

The tour that followed "Hail to the Thief" sold out arenas on four continents, ending at the Coachella Festival in Indio, California in 2004. And then there was no next step. No recording deadline, no more tour dates. As band members returned to their families, Radiohead went silent.

"We lost all momentum and it's very, very difficult to get momentum back," Yorke says.

Self-doubt runs through "The Eraser" and through the new songs that Radiohead is now playing on tour.

Yorke has sung for tens of thousands of people nightly in arenas worldwide, dancing across stages with jittery moves that define geeky abandon. But one-to-one he's gingerly, or perhaps just shy.

The music on "The Eraser" sounds intensely solitary. Keyboards, synthesizer sounds and spatters of percussion well up and loop around Yorke's sustained voice as he sings a depressive's litany. "There's no spark, no light in the dark/It gets you down," he sings in "Analyze," while in "Skip Divided," he repeats, "You are a fool for sticking 'round." So many of the songs are addressed to "you" that it sometimes sounds as if Yorke is staring into a mirror, singing comfortless lullabies to himself.

"There was a lot of me trying to pick myself up off the floor," he says. "Because I really sort of dropped - what's the word? sunk - dropped down and went into this big lull and couldn't do anything."

Yorke began work on "The Eraser" almost surreptitiously. Its songs were built from fragments of sound concocted at odd moments - like idle time in hotel rooms on tour - and stored on his laptop.

Radiohead convened last summer to work on new music. "There was no record company, there was no nothing," Yorke says. "It was really nice to be in a period where there was none of that."

At the end of September the band posted a photograph of a studio blackboard filled with song titles. "That was just to wind up all the Web sites," Yorke admits. But the band didn't feel productive overall. "Because there was no endpoint, there was no goal," he says. "To focus a group, a deadline is an excellent idea."

Radiohead hasn't resolved the question of how to release its new material. Although it seems that every last one of Radiohead's American and European fans is online, Yorke ruled out purely digital distribution because fans elsewhere - Russia or South America, for instance - are not so well connected. A company still needs to press CDs and get them to stores. "The truth is that the traditional medium is still there, and you need it," he says.

Radiohead has been one of the holdouts against having its music sold on iTunes, Apple's online music store, because, Yorke says, "the record companies basically don't want to pay the artists at all for the downloading." Without a contract, it can decide exactly how it wants to sell its recordings, which has left the band with "too many variables," he adds.

Eventually the band simply decided to postpone any decision about recordings, although it has decided to own its recordings and license them for distribution rather than signing a standard recording contract. "When we have something," he says with a shrug, "then we'll find whatever seems the most appropriate way to put it out."

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