Radiohead’s Discbox Blows A Mind
I’M INSTALLED IN A COMFY CHAIR in a corner of a £500 per night room at the Landmark Hotel, in Euston, London. The place buzzes with activity. Here a shy-looking Japanese journalist waiting to talk to Thom Yorke. There a team of photographers armed with an arsenal of equipment. “Track 8,” says one of them as he leaves the room. “You’ll know it when you hear it.”
Today is Radiohead’s first press day since 2003, and the Fab Five have been fast-tracking their way through dozens of journos, mostly from abroad. More importantly, for a once-only play, I have been handed a pristine copy of the unnamed “extras” CD that forms a crucial element of the mail-order-only Discbox. I haven’t yet got to Track 8 –4 Minute Warning by name, according to the hastily scribbled note that had been handed to me. I’m just a verse or two into Track 5 – Last Flowers – and I’m feeling distinctly uneasy.
With just a few simple chords and a killer of an opening line (“Appliances have gone berserk…”), Thom Yorke’s latest gift of spellbinding genius has left me no hiding place. Real tears threaten to blow my ‘seasoned interviewer’ cover wide open. What’s more, there are girls about. There aren’t many that can do this. But how to compare? Well, imagine something as fragile and haunting as, say, Syd Barrett’s Opel but transformed into a heartbreaker ballad fit for wider consumption. I say it loud: Last Flowers is right up there with Let Down, Pyramid Song, Street Spirit and the rest in Radiohead’s top trophy cabinet.
A little later on, drummer Phil Selway tells me that while In Rainbows works as a unique body of work, the material on the 27-minute-long second disc gives a more rounded impression of what the group have been up to these past four years. And he’s right. There’s certainly a more scuffed and dissonant feel about the eight songs here. Two of them, Mk1 and Mk2, are short, head music soundscapes, the former dignified by a reprise of a few notes from Videotape that links the two sets together.
A few weeks ago, at the height of the In Rainbows download mania, Thom Yorke chucked out a typically self-deprecating Robert Wyatt quote onto the band’s Dead Air Space blog. Coincidentally (or not), as I desperately scribble notes on each song, I hear a magnificent echo of Soft Machine in the dark instrumental passages on track 2, Down Is The New Up – though Yorke’s joyful Outkast-style falsetto over a plastic soul backing towards the song’s end is what’ll prompt most comment. There’s also something restrained and Wyatt-like about the melancholy, miniaturist Go Slowly, too, a song apparently recorded by Yorke during sessions for The Eraser.
At the other end of the scale, Bangers And Mash vents its avant-punk spleen like an only slightly more tamed Pop Group, complete with furious, floppy riffing and stop-start percussion. Imagine an entire album’s worth of this stuff! The atonal riff rock of Up On The Ladder is similarly punishing. Oh, and as for Track 8. Well, lyrically, it’s vintage Yorke (“This is just a nightmare/Soon I’m gonna wake up”), though the early-Velvets, demo-style backing doesn’t quite grab like some of the other material here.
Having said that, I’m sure it’s a grower, and in this “bonus disc”’s overwhelming context, it’s a minuscule caveat. Discbox is In Rainbows’ bigger, better brother. The bastards have done it again.
Note: Speaking to Thom Yorke a few days later, I asked him whether he thought Go Slowly had been undersold here on a limited edition release. “Yeah, that’s a total worry,” he said, “though it makes us feel better about Discbox. But, yes, I was sad that it wasn’t on In Rainbows. . . .”