Underappreciated Albums #2: Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (2003)

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NME: 7/10 (“a good rather than a great record”)

The Guardian: 3/5 (“Its bleakness – expressed in fragmentary, elliptical lyrics – seems to hold the album back”)

Q: 7/10 (“comes dangerously close to being all experimentalism and precious little substance”)

Blender: 6/10 (“like an hour-long sigh”)

3.73 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.77)

Radiohead don’t make concept albums. They make thematic ones, showing off the album unit as individual parts connected by interweaving ideas to a greater extent than most of their competitors. Hail To The Thief is arguably their greatest achievement in this regard. Fairy tales, mythical creatures, childhood fables, vampires, genies, rabbits, sirens, and wolves all make appearances. The album uses the language of imagination, myth and story-telling while offering a contentious title which, despite the band’s protestations, is about as politically direct as they come. This thematic unity is my defence against some of the criticisms of the album, then and now; it is schizophrenic (even by Radiohead’s standards), rushed, lacking identity in comparison to its genre-defining brethren, What would make it a concept album would be to try too hard and write a libretto for the music, rather than allowing the songs to spark off each other with respectful distance for their own status as individual units. One could imagine another band grappling with the same ideas and coming up with a frame narrative of a bedtime story, with interludes and other production tricks in the place of compelling material that found unity through its own artistic strength. The album’s original title was The Gloaming, meaning the period before sunset, and that has a metaphorical application referring to the point just before sleep – Yorke described the album’s structure as working in this manner, with ‘A Wolf At The Door’ as waking up to the realisation that reality is even worse in a piece of typically Yorkean cynicism. There’s a microaudience of Yorke’s son Noah, who prompted feelings of generational accountability in his father, and a macroaudience of the world at large, being lulled into paralysis by ignorance and fear.

It has my favourite album artwork from Stanley Donwood – compressing Yorke’s technique of manipulating other people’s soundbites into a purely visual form. The cover is based on a street map of Los Angeles. The greens are carefully placed to capture your attention which, in conjunction with the bluish sky above, give the impression of flying above the patchwork quilt of an English landscape. Or maybe the collage quality is a nod to Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, one of many children’s’ fiction characters that lurk around the periphery of the album. That sort of vastly abstracted impression of English scenery – like what Andrew Marvell called ‘a green thought’, albeit in a black rather than a green shade, as Stanley Donwood uses colours taken from the petrochemical industry – accompany the intensely vivid and non-specific pastoral locales invoked by the album, which oscillate between dream and reality, between a chance to escape political control and an acquiescence to simplified neoconservative rhetoric. Listen to the penultimate track ‘Scatterbrain’, where the first line of the song has Yorke’s vocal notes rise with ‘I’m walking out’, into what you expect to be a contemplative walk beloved in the English poetic tradition, before they are see-sawed down again with the shuddering ‘in a force ten gale’.

For once the band tried to avoid tampering with the live quality of their sound, recording a song per day in sessions in Los Angeles, hoping to circumvent the arguments that had threatened to tear the band apart when it came to editing and sequencing Kid A. Accordingly there is a last hurrah for the straight-up rocker in their songbook, from ‘2+2=5’, – a bonsai ‘Paranoid Android’ – through the tight guitar work on ‘Go To Sleep’, to the snaking crescendo of ‘There There’.

The album is full of stylistic throwbacks. ‘Where I End And You Begin’ is a swampy Joshua Tree style giant, with Jonny’s Ondes Martenot filling in for The Edge’s infinite guitar. I remember reading Pitchfork’s review of The Bends re-release where they described ‘Planet Telex’ as the first song that could have been released on any of their albums; ‘Where I End And You Begin’ may be their last song which could have nestled onto Pablo Honey, though the disaffection of an unrequited love in ‘Creep’ has morphed into 21st century Yorke’s cannibalistic urges (cf. ‘Knives Out’) to ‘eat you alive’. ‘Go To Sleep’ kicks off with a rootsy, Americana guitar riff that is accompanied by Yorke’s rather caustic attempt at a blues refrain, a refreshing song to listen to now, when the eight years of using America and its politicians as a punchline has given way to a pinnacle of untouchable liberal cool. Before that, Bush Jr followed in Regan’s wake in appropriating a particular image of rugged American nationalism, which is satirised in ‘Go To Sleep’, one of the band’s most underrated songs. Yorke in the song becomes a Rip Van Winkle mark 2, this time escaping from the Iraq War rather than the American War of Independence. Jonny Greenwood’s Max/MSP solo at the end is sometimes treated as a gimmick – and its strangely low place in the mix doesn’t do much to deter that assumption – but is one of their best sonic artefacts, a real crystallisation of the band’s themes of the self ripped apart by greater forces, to the point of possible insanity. Much is made of the album’s ‘raw’ quality but there is still the same sensitive awareness of the music’s status as a recorded entity; the first sound heard on the album is of a guitar being plugged in, and the last line of the last verse in closer ‘A Wolf At The Door’ is an anguished request to ‘turn the tape off’.

As well as looking backwards, there is innovation too: ‘A Wolf At The Door’ has Yorke give a demented spoken word-cum-rap-cum-singing performance, the vocal equivalent of Jonny Greenwood’s corrupted exit stage right at the end of ‘Go To Sleep’. It’s so wonderfully fitting of his lyrical style it’s a wonder he hasn’t recaptured it again. ‘Skip Divided’ comes close but is more melodic and too clubby, without the fractured angst of 2003. ‘Myxomatosis’ is the band at their most overdriven, the ‘swagger’ that Ed O’Brien talked about in recording the album disintegrating into a shabby, leprotic mass.

With what has happened to Radiohead since, Hail To The Thief seems like not just the end of their EMI years, but also the closing chapter in their tetchy rocktronica period before The Eraser gave Thom Yorke a platform to make his music to become weirdly sexy, with Colin Greenwood letting his soul influences really flow into his bass playing for the first time, taking Phil Selway with him. Occasionally the mantras on Hail to the Thief can get repetitive to the point of banality (‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ can lose its inherent tension after so many listens), and it is hard to disagree with the band’s sentiment that the album is simply too long and would have benefited from more rigorous mixing (‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ doesn’t need to be there, and ‘We Suck Young Blood’ could be punchier). The passing of time has helped Hail To The Thief in one way though, as the initial concerns that Radiohead had directed their creative energy into making a petulant protest album has ossified into something closer to what Jonny Greenwood diagnoses within the album, simply ‘what it feels like to be around in 2003’. The album is as a memento from the front line of a paranoid time.

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Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, exhibition at Howard Griffin Gallery, Shoreditch.

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Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view.

NB: This exhibition is now closed.

My parents moved house when I was four years old. My memory of the house I was born in is scarce to the point that I have no recollection of living there, but by a curious quirk of the brain I can remember vividly dreams that I had there. In one of them, I was scared to the point of running into my parents’ room after being assaulted by geometric shapes that crawled out of the walls like that bit with the moving letters in Sesame Street. Maybe it’s a moment of fancy, but that experience has always left me with a heightened affinity with the work of Surrealists, particularly those who interpose otherwise banal scenes with monolithic geometric shapes, with no commentary on their presence; they simply exist silently, unquestioned, with enormous symbolic weight. A great example is Paul Nash’s Equivalents for the Megaliths, which refuses to become an idyllic landscape painting as it reduces nature to its most simple constituent blocks. Resting squatly in the middle of the canvas, the shapes are not part of a narrative construction; they just are.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s paintings occupy the same territory as Nash’s banal fantasy, and are complemented very well by the dark, cavernous space created inside Shoreditch’s Howard Griffin Gallery. Ghadyanloo makes frequent hat-tips to the Surrealist school, but always on his own terms.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Logic of Metaphysics recalls Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane but the 1920s vision of the aircraft as a turbulent instrument of destruction has been replaced by the eerily silent, almost still hover of an aluminium tube, a sawn-off shotgun in Ghadyanloo’s rendering that rains down death indiscriminately. The bright and minimal environments of his work are descended from De Chirico, whose subtle paintings with all their implications of dread are a welcome contrast to the impulse to excessiveness found in Dali.

The ubiquity of the bowler hat in the paintings of Rene Magritte finds a companion here in Ghadyanloo’s soldier hovering over the stairs in Imitation of Respect. Ghadyanloo lacks the Freudian overtones of his Surrealist forebears, but this is maybe the closest example as the toy-sized soldier is dwarfed by the staircase leading up to a narrow passageway which resembles a vagina, the kind of overwhelming female force with recurs in Magritte and Dali alike. A recurrent image is the cube. It hangs above the heads of children like the sword of Damocles, a testament to inexplicable danger that seems to be overcome in Destiny Riders, but the presence of birds of prey adds another layer of intangible terror and paranoia. The juxtaposition of innocence and danger in his portrayal of children shows a rare blending of political statement with recognition of some of the more universally contradictory feelings held in childhood.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

His brushwork is breathtakingly effective in its simplicity; the varying reactions of the group on the stairs in Imitation of Sin can be discerned merely from the positioning of their arms, as a friend of mine pointed out – a closed-off fold here, a more open hands-on-hips pose there.

The exhibition shows off Ghadyanloo’s range of skills with different materials, as little resin sculptures are contained within little niches that, in conjunction with the stairs at the end of the gallery, transfigure it into a church-like space. The three dimensional quality of these works allows the feeling of suspended time to be stressed more than is possible on canvas. The exhibition describes Ghadyanloo’s murals – for which he is best known in Tehran, as they pepper the city’s buildings with tromp l’oeil wit – as a ‘shared public space for dreaming’. A deeply profound concept, and one which brings me back to the anecdote which kicked off this review. Ghadyanloo’s murals create a collective imaginative experience. Not to mention that living in a city is like living in a dream, particularly if, as in my case, your previous experience has been with much smaller places. Weird and wonderful tableaux pass by you. Decontextualised snippets of text and conversation float by you. While the city offers the promise of escaping into a large crowd, what stands out is your inability to do that – the number of people you walk past means that, through brutal probability, chances are you’ll bump into someone you already know, and probably wished to forget. The way in which people from your own past can be all gathered in a single location has always put me in mind of the arbitrary groups of people fused together in a dream. As William Wordsworth puts it in ‘Residence in London’, book VII of The Prelude:

     …the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams…

The exhibition may now be closed, but Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s profile should be raised by his residency in East London, and will hopefully return soon. An artist tipping his hat to tradition while concentrating on present-day political issues. Howard Griffin did a marvellous job at converting the gallery space to complement the artist’s work, and are well worth a visit in their own right.

Howard Griffin Gallery, 189 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6HU. Nearest Tube: Shoreditch High Street.

Ryan Hewett – Untitled, exhibition at The Unit London

 

“And so I am: then crushing penury

Persuades me I was better when a king;

Then am I king’d again: and by and by

Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,

Nor I nor any man that but man is

With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased

With being nothing.” – Richard II, William Shakespeare – Richard II.

 ‘Unking’ is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable neologisms, strikingly direct in the midst of a winding monologue by the title character at the end of Richard II. The idea of leaving an art show untitled is a common enough trope to make one roll one’s eyes, but in Ryan Hewett’s new exhibition at The Unit London, the elusive name is a cunning move, when thought about as antonymic to what is ‘titled’ – his bold, impasto portraits of notable figures removes their constructed iconographies; they untitle them.

 In the course of writing this review and opening up my word processor, my attention was brought to another definition of untitled, one which is rapidly becoming the default one; the untitled computer file. To be untitled in the digital age is to be synonymous with being unfinished. Fitting then, it should dub an exhibition where the paintings are completed by the viewer. The individual pieces are only known by their initials, so there is a guessing game to take part in, but also the nature of the colourful, abstract pieces means you’re not so much presented with a face but one emerges according to how you are prepared to see it. Faces are not presented, rather, they bloom from collisions of colour. The picture of Jesus is the best bridge for this, what with the history of seeing pictures of Christ in random shapes (Perhaps Unit London could look into loaning it to the newest Turin Shroud display). More recently, iconography has been de rigueur since Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ portrait of Barack Obama in 2008, and this makes the show as relevant as it could have ever been. Hewett manages to maintain an admirable distance from essentialising his subjects; the blotches of colour smeared across the canvas could easily be made by the defacer rather than the portraitist (many of the paintings are built from oil and spray). It gives the artist freedom from putting his entire weight behind simple criticism of approval of the person portrayed.

'J.C', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

‘J.C’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

Hewett’s style combines the aggressive, thickly applied technique running through Bacon, Freud and Auerbach with traces of abstract expressionism. Using the latter’s example of subconsciously inferred patterns ties with the artist’s expressed intent, which is to avoid ‘instant commentaries’ on notable figures, in favour of more ‘reflection’ to the (often random and unpredictable) effects that they cause on wider society, not allowing obsession with image and personality to dictate our interpretation and interaction with the world.  Using a less bounded palette of colours and shapes gives the impression of collision, of the portrait not standing statically but being impacted upon the canvas, showing the diaspora of consequences that the subjects’ existence and their actions brings forth. The exhibition groups heroes with villains, black with white (particularly important given the artist’s native country’s history with race – after all, what is a ‘natural’ skin tone?), something assisted by Unit London’s clever use of space. The gallery building is a gutted former Adidas shop, meaning that old cupboards and fitting rooms have been appropriated as little discovery spaces which offer a more private glimpse of a piece, and help break up the often routine circuit of going around an exhibition. There are some visual gags to enjoy as well; Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin keep each other company on the stairs, each providing inspiration for fanatical worship in their native land, and fanatical hatred in the other’s.

'B.H.O', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

‘B.H.O’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

 All in all, an exhibition worth visiting and an upcoming gallery to keep an eye on. Since their Modern Portraiture show last year, The Unit London have made a name for themselves in that field, shaking up a form which is still sometimes considered to be quite stale.  To sell out the paintings weeks in advance is no mean feat. What’s more, their effusive embrace of social media, paired with the genial atmosphere of the opening night, suggests a bright future ahead. I await what they have planned for the rest of 2015 with great anticipation.

The Unit London, 9 Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LL. Nearest Tube: Covent GardenExhibition runs until 24th May.

Shades of ‘Blood Meridian’ in ‘Whiplash’

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“At a young age, said the judge, [children] should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian is the archetypal unfilmable novel. We might just be able to use sufficient visual effects to capture the horror of McCarthy’s blood-drenched text, but it is a book ‘made out of other books’ as the author himself would describe it; it is rooted in paper and vellum, full of self-conscious allusions to Melville, Milton, Homer, and the authors of the Old Testament. The cadence and register of the novel appears to be so prophetic and literary, at least where it does not use utter specificity in the lexis of craftsmen and artisans, that to adapt it to film would miss that textual history entirely.

Then again, there is a back door available, the one taken by Damien Chazelle; to distill the novel’s characters and themes into a new setting, one in which the skeleton is visible but a new skin is sewn onto the outside. Whiplash does just this.

JK Simmons’ veins quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and they are an important part of his overall resemblance to the Judge. The Judge is ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’, both old and young, seemingly immortal, not subject to linear time, leading the narrator to speculate that he may not have been born but instead hatched from an ‘atavistic egg’. The film begins with Terence Fletcher looming at the door to Andrew Neiman’s practice room, dressed in his favourite wardrobe of head-to-toe black, and his superhuman powers of perception appear to be confirmed when Neiman tries to sneak a look into his practice room, only to find Fletcher staring right back at him. Both Holden and Fletcher cross the boundaries of human nature into forces of nature. Damien Chazelle mentioned in an interview that he specifically directed JK Simmons to go beyond the boundaries of how a human being would act. That jazz and the Western should share a mutual friend with romantic American mythologisation is a handy coincidence, so the (super)men take on board the history of a concentric cultural idioms, built upon layer-by-layer into a superficially pleasing narrative. Holden and Fletcher tease out our inclination to create these historical-cultural narratives without delving into the uncomfortable details, whether they are genocide or institutional abuse. Fletcher’s penchant for black clothing, tied with his supernatural aura, supports the interpretation of he and Holden as embodiments of evil in dualism/Gnosticism, the kind which has to be defeated through conscious will before it overwhelms you. Neiman is dressed all in white when he first encounters Fletcher and his clothing gets darker as the film progresses, with a brief reversion to pale when he encounters Fletcher at the latter’s seeming nadir. The lighting of the film reinforces this, as the rehearsal and performance spaces juxtapose bright foreground tones with a deeper darkness.

Whiplash’s director went to Harvard ‘expecting to concentrate on English’ and his appetite for reading seems evident in some allusions to Blood Meridian which appear too specific to be coincidencidental – both Neiman and the Kid lose their mothers at an early age (‘The mother dead these fourteen years’), and have fathers who are linked with failed writing – Neiman’s father practices it, while the Kid’s father is a ‘schoolmaster’  who ‘quotes from poets whose names are now lost’. In one of Fletcher’s characteristic drill sergeant style rants he humiliates Neiman by saying his mother ran off when she found out his father wasn’t ‘fucking Eugene O’Neill’. That outburst follows a moment where he and Neiman appear to have something of a heart to heart, with Fletcher drawing his charge closer into his confidence. It all proves to be a ruse though, and such emotional instability is practised by Holden, who, during the Glanton Gang’s sallies, picks up little children and puppies only to brutally murder them when his interest wanes.

The settings of the two works are vastly different – the West in its Wildest incarnation versus a smart New York music conservatory – but there is a structural overlap. The Kid and the Judge have their final meeting in a saloon bar years after the rest of the narrative; the Kid now more of a man. Fletcher and Neiman discuss the turns their lives have taken at a drinking den where Fletcher is performing with a house band. The Judge ends up as a performer at the bar following his literally unspeakable murder of the Kid (the narrator, for once, refuses to divulge the extent of the violence that takes place), as he strikes up a dance and joins in with the fiddle music. The chilling ending of Blood Meridian which describes the Judge as a ‘great favourite’ who is always ‘dancing, dancing’ puts the Judge in the position of artist, raising the question of whether art has a moral obligation – the Judge’s charisma and knowledge are undeniable, but are directed into horrific ends. There’s a similar dialogue at work in Whiplash. Neiman’s dream is to become the greatest jazz drummer of all time, but does that title mean anything if it rests at the top of a pyramid of abuse? Fletcher mentions offhandedly that Neiman’s former challenger for the drum seat, Tanner, has quit the conservatory to start a premed course. An offhand comment which strikes a powerful chord: which is more beneficial to the rest of humanity? Fletcher even comments towards the end of the film that ‘we are depriving the world’ by not allowing his teaching methods to facilitate the next creative genius. Here there is an overlap with another fine film from the last year, Birdman, the debate in which I discussed in another blog entry. Is there a line in the sand that can be drawn where art’s ability to inspire people becomes less important than the damage it causes to the people who produce it and those who know and love them? It’s a theme that Hollywood keeps revisiting and the deeper lying reasons for this are worth considering in more detail, should someone wish to take up the mantle.

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The bond forged between Fletcher and Neiman at the end of the film is made plain by the conductor stepping in to fix Neiman’s drum kit when it begins to topple over during his furious solo. This is a detail which has been neglected in most analyses of this now iconic final scene. Not only does it show Neiman’s dependence on Fletcher, but it highlights how he has internalised the attitude Fletcher presses onto him, the climax of bloody practice sessions where he has to dunk his hands in ice water – his drum kit is an outlet for a deeper sense of violence. Violence, is of course, the hallmark of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian; Harold Bloom considers it one of the greatest American novels, but even as experienced a reader as he found the novel’s level of gratuitous bloodspilling unpalatable at first. It’s not just blood that’s spilled in Blood Meridian though; piss and spit and shit flow through the pages. What lifts Damien Chazelle’s film above its immediate peers is its recognition of the bodily trauma that goes into the practice which forges great musicians; there’s a wonderful sequence of quick cuts before Neiman’s first rehearsal with the elite band, where he sees the brass players launch a quick gozz onto the floor. The washes of yellows and oranges provided by the lights in that rehearsal space are almost Rembrandtesque, a nod to the institution of art as a whole and perhaps that artist’s turbulent personal life (which was, nevertheless, the provocation for some of his most breathtaking work, making him a fit companion for Fletcher and Riggan Thomson in Birdman).

I don’t believe in issuing a one-size-fits-all interpretation for anything, but anyone who thinks that the final scene represents a victory for Neiman, I urge you to watch again: observe how Neiman finally finds Fletcher’s ‘tempo’ as the conductor reduces him to one-two drum patterns like a wind-up toy soldier. When building him up to the appropriate speed, his hand trembles with shamanistic power, dancing in the ‘light and shadow’ of the stage as the Judge does, every inch the primordial spirit the film has hinted that he may be, just as Holden’s immortality is elaborated by the narrator in Blood Meridian’s pulsating conclusion.