Radiohead: “In Rainbows”
Radiohead once recorded a song called “Climbing Up the Walls”– a phrase that has long served as a fitting summary of the band’s own on-record persona. A restless anxiety and discomfort in their own skin has characterized the band’s vibe since the very beginning, only escalating as they gained further fame and notoriety– so it makes sense that, after the blockbuster success of OK Computer, they blew up their sound altogether with Kid A, an album that simultaneously tore down and inflated our ideas of what rock music could be, all the while making it clear that Thom Yorke and Co. were feeling even more restless and discontented than ever before. That carried over into the album’s sequel, Amnesiac, and even its follow-up, their return to guitar rock on Hail to the Thief.
All that background is crucial to understanding just why the band’s seventh LP, In Rainbows, is such a big deal. Though it will probably always be remembered for its shocking, sudden Internet-only release and its fill-in-the-blank price tag, In Rainbows is more than a triumph of marketing; more than anything else, it’s a landmark recording because, for the first time ever, Yorke and his crew sound comfortable with themselves, and completely unconcerned with their persona and what people are going to think of them. They’re through with finding themselves– here, with stunning clarity, they’ve finally settled down, shifting their focus from sonic experimentation and expectation-confounding to the simple act of making beautiful, creatively vibrant. And indeed, In Rainbows earns the adjective “beautiful” more than any other record in the Radiohead canon.
Of course, there’s a bit of a trade-off at play here, and though it’s significantly tilted toward the positive, I’ll start with the negative. Radiohead sounds so comfortable and convincing here that, initially, you don’t realize what a major achievement that really is; it simply sounds like a Radiohead album is supposed to sound. The dazzling adventures and flabbergasting surprises of Kid A and Amnesiac are gone– or at least, they’re more subtle— which means that, upon first brush, these ten new songs fail to excite and exhilarate the way the band’s more experimental efforts did.
But with time, the album’s ample virtues pay off in spades. Tuneful and melodic like no Radiohead album since The Bends, and much warmer and romantic than that album ever was, In Rainbows is sexy and soulful like Radiohead albums have never been before, built around rhythms and grooves, soaring crescendos and euphoric choruses. These are sultry, organic songs that get the feet moving just as Yorke’s lyrics tease and riddle the brain, and the band has never sounded tighter as a unit. The biggest revelation here is drummer Phil Selway– Radiohead’s secret weapon– whose brushed drums, woodblocks, and hand percussion lend these songs intimacy and seductive warmth, especially on slow, lazy groovers like “House of Cards” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.”
Elsewhere, Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich drape the songs with glistening layers of synthesizers, making the soaring ballad “Nude” one of the most straightforwardly gorgeous songs they’ve ever done. The same goes with the slow, steady build of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”– which climaxes with the kind of rousing sweep that one generally associates with U2 or Coldplay, not the typically dour Radiohead.
Indeed, there are numerous surprises here, and though they aren’t as initially shocking as the anti-rock of Kid A, they’re ultimately easier to embrace, and may pay off more in the long run. Yorke’s sparse, melancholy piano makes “Videotape” one of their spookiest album-closers, while the brassy synths and unrelenting beat of “All I Need” add up to a genuinely affecting love song. And there are a couple of rock numbers: “15 Steps” kicks things off with a bit of a red herring– quirky synthetic twitching a la “The Gloaming” or “Backdrifts”– before gelling into a snaking striptease of a song that bears more in common with American R&B than a song like, say, “Airbag” or “The Bends.” Meanwhile, “Bodysnatchers” is one of their angriest, edgiest guitar-rockers, like a meaner cousin of “2+2=5” or “There, There.”
And Thom Yorke continues to impress as a singer; even if it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make out just what he’s saying, his work here is as varied as ever, snarling and darn near foaming at the mouth on “Bodysnatchers,” hitting glorious falsetto notes on “Nude,” and even playing the role of the crooner in some of the slower numbers. No longer does he seem obsessed with his persona, or painfully uncomfortable in the spotlight; here, his focus is on the most primal and essential parts of his music, on the melodies and the rhythms– and it’s this attitude that not only characterizes the whole record, but also makes it the most enjoyable and listenable album Radiohead’s ever done.