In Rainbows, the long-awaited seventh album from Radiohead, four plus years in the making (several songs have been floating around for a bit longer), is sure to spark discussion and argument, including, but certainly not limited to, the following. With the band’s method of delivery, as a digital download that cuts out the big label middleman, has Radiohead revolutionized the music industry? This review originally had a long diatribe about this concept, but I’ll forgo that aspect and let you, the reader, do the arguing. This, of course, leads into the idea of direct digital music files ultimately replacing the physical form of a CD. That being said, Radiohead also offered a set-price package for a double CD set, the album on vinyl and several other goodies, should you need such a tangible relic (such as myself). The band has also stated in an interview that they still plan to release the album through a label early next year. Finally, the last and most pertinent argument revolves around the music of In Rainbows itself: How does it stack up against six critically lauded and fan favorite albums?
Upon receiving the mp3 files of the album, hyped for only ten days, but weighted with the anticipation of bootlegged live recordings and YouTube videos over the past few years, I approached with trepidation. This album, perhaps more than any other, had been poked, prodded and previewed, through the aforementioned methods, before its actual release. Yet, In Rainbows is far more than just a sum of these assembled parts. It is a solid, intricate, balanced and gorgeous affair. It is also, quite possibly, knowing that time may prove otherwise, the best Radiohead album to date. I write this knowing full well that alternately The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A top several fans’ lists, but In Rainbows combines several of the best aspects of all of these albums, while also showcasing what is easily the most refined and mellifluous that Thom Yorke’s vocals have ever been. While this in itself may seem like enough, it is also evident that every member of the band has progressed along with Yorke. Jonny Greenwood’s, his brother Colin’s and Ed O’Brien’s guitars, bass and computerized blips and bleeps are incredibly measured and sprinkled throughout, and Phil Selway’s percussion is nothing if not exquisite.
“15 Step” is the opening salvo aimed at listeners, and is the perfect example of the eventual brilliant blend of styles culminating in this landmark album. We have OK‘s guitar and drum experimentalism, Kid A’s techno gadgetry and Hail to the Thief‘s lyric imagery. Throw in a bunch of kids shouting ‘Yay!’ and you have it all. “Bodysnatchers” is a grim view of present and future times set to one of the most straightforward ‘rock’ songs Radiohead has performed. At times, the track recalls all of the pent up and then released energy of “Just,” but, even with that song’s infamous and incredible video, “Bodysnatchers” seems far creepier. “Nude” is one of the oldest songs on the album, having its origins dating back three titles and about eight or nine years ago. But, in true Radiohead fashion, they were never quite satisfied with it and continued to refine it. (Yorke has appeared several times on television or in concert saying things to the effect of, “we never quite got this one right, but here’s a better version.” “Fog” comes to mind as one example). The end result of “Nude” with its soft guitars, dreamy atmospherics and ethereal falsetto proves their hard work didn’t go to waste. Think “Exit Music (For a Film)” with an even more stunning vocal delivery. The lyrics seem to denote a male dominated world and the consequences of improprieties.
For me, the truly astonishing and transcendent portion of the album begins with “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi,” a song that until the release of In Rainbows went simply by the second half of that title. The cascade of kaleidoscopic guitars and overlapping voices from the distant deep add that underwater feel as informed by the lyrics. “All I Need” blew me away the first time I heard it, and it continues to floor me with each and every listen. It’s also unique in that it is one of the few songs that haven’t appeared in some incarnation before this release. Low end keyboards and a steady Selway drum track are filled in with white noise as the song progresses until the introduction of dramatic piano, and then ten seconds later, everything breaks loose into swirling chaotic bliss. One can’t help but think of a Sigur Ros comparison, or even Arcade Fire thanks to the later appearance of what sounds to be a chamber pipe organ. The string section of “Faust Arp” makes it a melancholy, but gorgeous track, with a vocal cadence similar to that of “A Wolf at the Door.”
“Reckoner” is another one that’s been around for a long time, approximately six years, having first appeared in my new home state at the Gorge Amphitheater, albeit in a more “skronky” and guitar-driven format. The song has been stripped down to a dreamy percussive number, more closely matching other jazzy guitar signature styles on In Rainbows, and much more balanced, including a magnificent string section at the close. “Reckoner” is also one of the best examples of Yorke’s newfound vocal confidence, maybe after having gained significant strides with his solo effort, The Eraser. “House of Cards” is another highlight in my book, with the song taking cues from some of U2’s best tracks, as well as R.E.M. Although the instrumentation is intricately laid out, it’s not over the top, with a definitely more classical feel, a la Passengers. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” seems like a perfect bridge song between the dramatics of Amnesiac and the raw energy of Hail to the Thief. Then, at least until the second disc ships to customers who paid the price tag for the deluxe set, “Videotape” closes out the In Rainbows experience dramatically, almost in the way that the Smiths used to close out their albums, on a somber goodbye lullaby. “Videotape” mostly consists of Yorke alone at the piano, as he has played it previously, delivering somewhat of a video message from beyond the grave. The percussive elements bring another, more menacing aspect to the song than in the live version, as if the threat of death and Mephistopheles is somehow more real. It also somehow cuts through the sentimental treacle aspect to the song.
Shying away from other arguments, like the “pay your own price” scheme, because this review is long enough already, one has to simply focus on the tracks at hand. In a way, the marketing plan was sheer genius. There are no lyric sheets, other than what has appeared from fan interpretation on the Internet, no packaging or press sheet, and not even a real album cover save for the website’s introductory image and several permutations of fan-made artwork. The only thing reviewers have to rely on is the music, and that’s ultimately what Radiohead is all about. Radiohead has outdone themselves with In Rainbows. Sure, every band has its detractors that seem to long for the days of the past, with so-called “purists” pining for a repeat of The Bends, OK Computer or Kid A, but In Rainbows is far better of an outcome for Radiohead fans. It’s a sum total of the Radiohead experience, with the lyrical wit and depth, the dramatic intensity and minimalist experimentation that fans have come to expect with each successive release. And after a website devoted to the calculation of currency exchange led me to believe I’d be paying less for the deluxe package (I guess they hadn’t adjusted for the sharply dropping dollar), I realized that it didn’t matter, it was definitely worth the price. Seriously, as soon as you’ve given it as much time as you have those preceding albums, you’ll agree with me.
Thom Yorke- The Eraser
Passengers- Original Soundtracks I
UNKLE- Psyence Fiction