Review by Andy Kellman
In Rainbows, as a title, implies a sense of comfort and delightfulness. Symbolically, rainbows are more likely to be associated with kittens and warm blankets than the grim and glum circumstances Radiohead is known for soundtracking. There's a slight, if expected, twist at play. The band is more than familiar with the unpleasant moods associated with colors like red, green, and blue -- all of which, of course, are colors within a rainbow -- all of which are present, and even mentioned, during the album. On a couple levels, then, In Rainbows is not any less fitting as a Radiohead album title than "Myxomatosis" as a Radiohead song title. Despite references to "going off the rails," hitting "the bottom," getting "picked over by the worms," being "dead from the neck up," and feeling "trapped" (twice), along with Radiohead Wordplay Deluxe Home Edition pieces like "comatose" and "nightmare" -- in the same song! double score! -- the one aspect of the album that becomes increasingly perceptible with each listen is how romantic it feels, albeit in the way that one might find the bioport scenes in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ to be extremely hot and somewhat unsettling. Surprisingly, some of the album's lyrics are even more personal/universal and straightforward than anything on The Eraser, the album made by Thom Yorke and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. "I'm an animal trapped in your hot car," from "All I Need," has to be one of the saddest, most open-hearted metaphors used to express unrequited love. "House of Cards" begins with "I don't want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover/No matter how it ends/No matter how it starts," and the one with the worms includes "I'd be crazy not to follow/Follow where you lead/Your eyes/They turn me." This effective weaving of disparate elements -- lyrical expressions commonly associated with the band, mixed in with ones suited for everyday love ballads -- goes for the music as well. The album is very song-oriented, with each track constantly moving forward and developing, yet there are abstract electronic layers and studio-as-instrument elements to prevent it from sounding like a regression. In Rainbows will hopefully be remembered as Radiohead's most stimulating synthesis of accessible songs and abstract sounds, rather than their first pick-your-price download.
Like many music lovers of a certain age, I have a lot of warm memories tied up with release days. I miss the simple ritual of making time to buy a record. I also miss listening to something special for the first time and imagining, against reason, the rest of the world holed up in their respective bedrooms, having the same experience. Before last Wednesday, I can't remember the last time I had that feeling. I also can't remember the last time I woke up voluntarily at 6 a.m. either, but like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, there I was, sat at my computer, headphones on, groggy, but awake, and hitting play.
Such a return to communal exchange isn't something you'd expect to be orchestrated by a band who's wrung beauty from alienation for more than a decade. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it's that Radiohead revel, above all else, in playing against type. It's written in their discography; excluding the conjoined twins that were Kid A and Amnesiac, each of their albums constitutes a heroic effort to debunk those that came before it. Although 2003's Hail to the Thief was overlong and scattershot, it was important insofar as it represented the full band's full-circle digestion and synthesis of the sounds and methods they first toyed with on OK Computer. So, after a decade of progression, where do we go from here?
If the 2006 live renditions of their new material were anything to go by, not much further. With few exceptions, the roughly 15 songs introduced during last year's tour gave the impression that after five searching records, Radiohead had grown tired of trying to outrun themselves. Taken as a whole, the guitar-centric compositions offered a portrait of a band who, whether subconsciously or not, looked conciliatory for the first time in its career. Although a wonderful surprise, their early October album announcement only lent further credence to the theory. Where they'd previously had the confidence to precede albums like OK Computer and Kid A with marketing fanfare worthy of a classic-in-making, this sneak attack felt like a canny strategy to prepare fans for an inevitable downshift.
The brilliant In Rainbows represents no such thing. Nonetheless, it's a very different kind of Radiohead record. Liberated from their self-imposed pressure to innovate, they sound-- for the first time in ages-- user-friendly; the glacial distance that characterized their previous records melted away by dollops of reverb, strings, and melody. From the inclusion and faithful rendering of longtime fan favorite "Nude" to the classic pop string accents on "Faust Arp" to the uncharacteristically relaxed "House of Cards", Radiohead's sudden willingness to embrace their capacity for uncomplicated beauty might be In Rainbows' most distinguishing quality, and one of the primary reasons it's an improvement on Hail to the Thief.
Now that singer Thom Yorke has kickstarted a solo career-- providing a separate venue for the solo electronic material he used to shoehorn onto Radiohead albums-- Radiohead also sound like a full band again. Opener "15 Step"'s mulched-up drum intro represents the album's only dip into Kid A-style electronics; from the moment Jonny Greenwood's zestful guitar line takes over about 40 seconds in, In Rainbows becomes resolutely a five-man show. (For all of Yorke's lonely experimental pieces, it's easy to forget how remarkably the band play off each other; the rhythm section of Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are especially incredible, supplying between them for a goldmine of one-off fills, accents, and runs over the course of the record.) A cut-up in the spirit of "Airbag"-- albeit with a jazzier, more fluid guitar line-- "15 Step" gives way to "Bodysnatchers", which, like much of In Rainbows, eschews verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of a gradual build. Structured around a sludgy riff, it skronks along noisily until about the two-minute mark, when the band veers left with a sudden acoustic interlude. By now, Radiohead are experts at tearing into the fabric of their own songs for added effect, and In Rainbows is awash in those moments.
The band's big-hearted resurrection of "Nude" follows. The subject of fervent speculation for more than a decade, its keening melodies and immutable prettiness had left it languishing behind Kid A's front door. Despite seeming ambivalent about the song even after resurrecting it for last year's tour, this album version finds Yorke wrenching as much sweetness out of it as he possibly can, in turn giving us our first indication that he's in generous spirits. Another fan favorite, "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" brandishes new drums behind its drain-circling arpeggios, but sounds every bit as massive in crescendoing as its live renditions suggested it might. "All I Need", meanwhile, concludes the album's first side by dressing up what begins as a skeletal rhythm section in cavernous swaths of glockenspiel, synths, pianos, and white noise.
With its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and syrupy strings, "Faust Arp" begs comparisons to some of the Beatles' sweetest two-minute interludes, while the stunning "Reckoner" takes care of any lingering doubt about Radiohead's softer frame of mind: Once a violent rocker worthy of its title, this version finds Yorke's slinky, elongated falsetto backed by frosty, clanging percussion and a meandering guitar line, onto which the band pile a chorus of backing harmonies, pianos, and-- again-- swooping strings. It may not be the most immediate track on the album, but over the course of several listens, it reveals itself to be among the most woozily beautiful things the band has ever recorded.
With its lethargic, chipped-at guitar chords, "House of Cards" is a slow, R.E.M.-shaped ballad pulled under by waves of reverbed feedback. While it's arguably the one weak link in the album's chain, it provides a perfect lead-in to the spry guitar workout of "Jigsaw Falling Into Place". Like "Bodysnatchers" and "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" before it, "Jigsaw" begins briskly and builds into a breakneck conclusion, this time with Yorke upshifting from low to high register to supply a breathless closing rant.
Finally, the closer. Another fan favorite, Yorke's solo versions of "Videotape" suggested another "Pyramid Song" in the making. Given the spirit of In Rainbows, you'd be forgiven for assuming its studio counterpart might comprise some sort of epic finale, but to the disappointment of fans, it wasn't to be. Instead, we get a circling piano coda and a bassline that seems to promise a climax that never comes. "This is one for the good days/ And I have it all here on red, blue, green," Yorke sings. It's an affecting sentiment that conjures up images of the lead singer, now a father of two, home filming his kids. A rickety drum beat and shuddering percussions work against the melody, trying clumsily to throw it off, but Yorke sings against it: "You are my center when I spin away/ Out of control on videotape."
As the real life drums give way to a barely distinguishable electronic counterpart, Yorke trails off, his piano gently uncoils, and the song ends with a whimper. The whole thing is an extended metaphor, of course, and, this being Radiohead, it's heavy-handed in its way, but it's also a fitting close to such a human album. In the end, that which we feared came true: In Rainbows represents the sound of Radiohead coming back to earth. Luckily, as it turns out, that's nothing to be afraid of at all.
-Mark Pytlik, October 15, 2007
In Rainbows [CD 2]
The "pay what you want" fire sale that launched In Rainbows in October wasn't a new idea so much as a perfect amalgamation of distribution tactics that bands large (Smashing Pumpkins) and small (the thousands on MySpace) have tried since the birth of the mp3. As technorati, Radiohead are to indie bands what Led Zeppelin were to broke old bluesmen: They took the ideas and got people to scream about them. Three months later, the questions keep flying about their business: How many people bought the download? What was the average sum they chucked in the tip jar? Is it true that, even though Radiohead basically gave the files away, a slim majority of listeners went ahead and stole them out of habit?
It's fair to say that the shop talk eclipses interest in the B-sides record tucked into Radiohead's €55 ($80) discbox (which it packs in alongside In Rainbows on both CD and vinyl, plus pix, artwork, lyrics-- and if you have to ask if that's all worth the price, it's clearly not meant for you). Like the main LP, this bonus disc could not be mistaken for the work of a band other than Radiohead-- from Thom Yorke's nerve's-edge balladeering, to ever-slighter splashes of experimentalism, to guitar tones as fussed over as other band's hairdos. But it also catches the band at its most maudlin: Not only did Radiohead cram their leftovers onto this bonus disc, but they also gather all the mopey, overplayed tropes their last album left behind. Radiohead have always capitalized on tension, but here, that tension turns to exhaustion.
The playlist wades from one slice of paranoia to another, the ear going most often to the incessant horror film piano-- and to Yorke's voice. His strained falsetto and near-soul-singing on "Down Is the New Up" deliver the risk-taking you'd expect from an odds-and-ends release, but the cynical/alienated rut into which he grinds himself has the persistence of a toothache. "Up on the Ladder", which has been under construction since the 1990s, is all climb, no teeter-- and elsewhere bare lines like "I can't face the evening straight/ And you can offer me escape" sound like the guy at the next bar stool that you've been turning your back to all night. Here, Yorke sounds like neither a post-millennial prophet nor an uncanny empathist, so much as a crank.
Still, the thick fog that hangs over the album doesn't obscure all its gems. Though it goes nowhere, "Go Slowly"'s slow burn would have fit on the proper album-- for that matter, it could've been an outtake from any of their last four records. The pristine "Last Flowers" may be a textbook Yorke ballad, but at least it's a pretty one. As the album's only wake-up call, "Bangers & Mash"'s antic drums grab your attention until Yorke's crude snarling lets it go again-- although the itchy, uncomfortable feeling it gives you is an interesting break from an otherwise sweatless set. Best-of-EP honors go to "Four Minute Warning", a breath-catching little campfire song about (what else?) taking cover from an aerial attack: Radiohead have predicted World War III for so long, it's no surprise they'd stay calm when it shows up.
But its weaknesses notwithstanding, this bonus disc isn't meant for the public at large; it's for the fans, who've studied these songs through bootlegs, YouTube clips, and clues on websites. To them, it's an extra goodie in the luxurious Discbox stocking. And as net-savvy as Radiohead may be-- and for as many goofy webcasts and sketchy websites as they've posted over the years-- they still seem to love their hard, physical packages. These aren't just the studio versions of "Up on the Ladder", et al.: They're the canonical, compact disc editions, polished and packaged as official versions. A lesser band might have crammed some bootlegs and demo takes in here, but when Radiohead put something on disc, they want it to count. For a band with so many ideas about digital life, they still treat the record as king.
-Chris Dahlen, December 14, 2007