There is much discussion and debate about what the next Radiohead album will be like. Will it be another In Rainbows, or will it be a Kid A? To shed light on the issue I think it is helpful to look at the Beatles, following their progression, and decline, and using this as a lens for studying the future of Radiohead.
Beyond all doubt, Beatles and the Radiohead will go down as two of the greatest rock bands of all time. They both were able to change the music of their day dramatically and with seeming ease, creating legacies that other groups have had a difficult time measuring up to. Therefore, through studying the development and progression of the Beatles, especially a later work, one can more clearly outline the direction Radiohead is likely to take as they continue to make more music.
Both of these bands first albums were a medley of pop songs. These songs made them popular, made them famous, but rather being content with this fame, these groups took the influence they were given to take rock and roll into an entirely new direction. They then began to progress and mature, creating album after album that were often as startlingly different as they were groundbreaking as their innovation became less encumbered. Both groups also released what can be called “Mid-Life Crisis” albums, the White Album and Hail to the Thief, in the middle of their careers, that were less succinct and clear than their other albums, but still contained a remarkable set of songs.
The Beatles then went on to continue to experiment and refine their music until their eventual breakup. With each album after their respected interregnum the band continued to progress and mature. However, with each following album the Beatles became less and less focused on the creation of the album, relying more on individual efforts, which at times makes their albums feel choppy, and not as coherent as others. There was also a move by the members of the band to do more independent work. The reasons behind this change are complicated, and are likely a combination of attempts at being able to keep innovating and personal reasons, as the band was dominated by two major personalities, Lennon and McCartney.
It is this path that Radiohead seems to be following. Since Hail to the Thief, its members are attempting to do more solo work, take Eraser and the soundtrack to There Will be Blood. The band had come close to breaking up at points earlier because of the dominating personality of York, creating great strain on the personal relations of the members. Thus it seems that Radiohead as a band is waning. They will likely release several more albums, and they are likely to be great albums, but as this progression shows, it seems that their vitality has been spent. They have also refined their sound and their image. They also have figured out who and what they are, and are comfortable making an album such as In Rainbows, which is my favorite album, but lacks the innovation or edginess of the bands earlier work. This is a trend that I think will continue with each next album having a more personal sound. This is not to say that Radiohead is over and that they can no longer create, but merely that they no longer have the energy to create another OK Computer or Kid A, in the same fashion that the Beatles no longer had the energy to make another Rubber Soul or Sgt. Peppers.
To a certain extent, I hope that I am wrong. I would love to see Radiohead revitalize itself, and its members, and create new groundbreaking albums. However, with the release of Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows it just does not seem likely. Their legacy has largely been set, and future albums will not, largely because they can not, have the energy and innovation of their earlier work.