A dozen listens in, and the only criticism that can be leveled at I Might Be Wrong, Radiohead's first live outing, is that it's too short -- eight songs in 40 minutes, barely enough time to get a swerve on.
It's disappointing only because Radiohead's long been the best live rock outfit around (give or take a U2 show), making visceral what seemed incidental on disc -- that is, you can at last feel with your heart what the head always cock-blocked. What was always unlistenable about the studio product gets stripped away, left in the sterile neverland, forgotten and ignored; live, it's all about the song, not the static that buried melody and lyric and performance like a cold, stiff corpse. Sometimes, the music's just gotta breathe, even if it's inhaling secondhand smoke from an audience member's poorly rolled joint.
The last time Radiohead made a record you could listen to for grins was The Bends; the mother rocked, even when laying low. Everything since then has been the sonic equivalent of two old robots fucking. Between them, OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac contained their share of mini-masterpieces, but damned if there's any joy to be taken from seeking them out; anyone who says they listen to those albums for kicks is either joking or running a Radiohead fan Web site. Only live can you tell how great those songs are -- how much fun they can be to play and listen to, as Thom Yorke and the crowd smile in unison. Too bad this collection doesn't offer the live "Optimistic" found on a CMJ sampler; it's the sound of blood pumping through your veins, turned up to 100. But I Might Be Wrong is every bit as warm and inviting as Amnesiac and Kid A, from which its songs are culled, are cold and standoffish.
One of the first things you hear is Yorke's breath, which he seems to be running out of; it's more human than anything Radiohead's offered in years. Opener "The National Anthem" is rendered little more than fuzz and groan; God knows what Yorke's singing about (I know -- it's deep, deep shit about loneliness and alienation, whatever), but it doesn't matter in this new, expanded context. The body's too concerned with keeping pace to let the brain linger too long in deep analysis.
That said, it's a revelation to discover that which you thought despairing is almost . . . optimistic; who knew, aside from the faithful who listen with headphones plugged in, that "I Might Be Wrong" is about faith and not failure, redemption and not merely regret. The song's still tension without release (like, say, every other P.J. Harvey disc), but being able to actually connect with the songs makes it somehow more palpable, not to mention palatable. But the revelation's in the playing: "Like Spinning Plates," with its Enya keybs, sounds like new age with a heart; "Idioteque," set to a metronome's goose-step, is what they play on heaven's dance floor; and "Everything in Its Place" sounds almost like a spiritual, as Yorke's voice bounces off the walls and the audience claps along. You only wish the band would let loose, dig out "Planet Telex" or "High & Dry," make noise that breaks more than just your heart.
This is a disc bookended by polar opposites, by the throbbing anthemic rock of "National" and the heartrending acoustic plaint of "True Love Waits," an oldie forever a goodie, finally available on something other than an expensive import or boot. It sounds at first (and forever) like something cast off from Pablo Honey, back before Radiohead started pretending it was something other than a rock band (or did its fans do that for them?) -- just a voice and an acoustic guitar, begging for tiny hands and crazy kisses to rescue him from himself. It's at once the most daft thing Yorke's ever uttered ("And true love waits/In haunted attics/And true love waits/On lollipops and crisps") and most haunting ("I'm not living," he croons, stretching the last word into a thousand syllables, "I'm just killing time"). It's a hell of a place to end -- perfect, actually, even if you wish it would go on forever and ever.
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