Credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

Saturday Night Live opened up its 37th season over the weekend with guns blazing. The show trotted out record-breaking, much-beloved host Alec Baldwin, whipped off their first funny political cold open since the 2008 election, and invited Radiohead, one of the most cultishly adored bands on the planet, to stand in as the musical guest.

In case you have forgotten, Radiohead actually put out an album this year. It’s called The King of Limbs, and it was almost completely forgettable. Objectively speaking, it’s another impressive sonic accomplishment, full of rumbles and hums and womb-like soundscapes. But once upon a time, the band used to write real songs, and those are nowhere to be found on The King of Limbs.

They didn’t do much to change minds on Saturday night, as frontman Thom Yorke and his collective of bleep-bloop obsessives twitched their way through a pair of tunes: the sinister b-side “Staircase” and the sorta-single “Lotus Flower,” the latter of which you can check out below.

Look, Radiohead can do whatever they like. They’ve earned the right to do nothing but put their elbows on a sample of penguin mating calls, loop it for an hour, and call it an album. That’s the sort of caché a band can buy when they put out The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A in what has to be the greatest three-punch combination in rock history.

However, it gets harder and harder to break into the insular world of the post-Kid A albums, and the live experience actually hurts them more than it helps.Radiohead still have a reputation for being an incredible live act, and that is true to a point: It’s impressive that they can execute such complex songs live, and their older material still gets delivered with requisite intensity and furor. But there are all sorts of red flags.

Yorke still manages to pull off his embarrassing white guy dance (holding up the torch for recently-retired R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe), but the fact that Jonny Greenwood often trades in his guitar for a bank of electronics feels a little alienating. And at what point did Radiohead decide they needed two drummers like they were the Allman Brothers Band?

The bottom line is I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel watching that video above, and there isn’t a whole lot in the song to clue me in. I don’t need to be spoon-fed, but the reason why even the headiest bands rely on hoary rock and roll clichés is because they actually work. Without those sign posts, I might as well be watching Trey Anastasio endlessly noodle on “Tweezer,” and at that point I’ve already turned my television off.

What did you think of Radiohead’s performance on SNL? And what do you think of their latter-day material, especially in comparison to their older stuff? And if I’m missing something completely, would you let me know? Sound off in the comments below.


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