Produced by Nigel Godrich
After four years of mystery, the longest gap between Radiohead albums has finally come to a decisive close, following Wednesday’s release of new record In Rainbows.
I’ve been anxious to get my hands on this one since last June, when longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich posted tiny bits of the album on Radiohead’s site, Dead Air Space. But I’ve been especially anxious since Sunday night, when famed Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood posted news of the album’s completion and title on the site. This post included a link to Web site inrainbows.com, the only place to acquire the fetal album, and offered two options for purchase. The first option, a digital download, came out on Wednesday and featured all 10 album tracks; in addition, buyers could name their own price for the new release. The second option, a disc box to be mailed in December, includes In Rainbows, a supplementary disc, two vinyl 12”s, artwork, digital download, and more, but for the lofty sum of around $80. Of course, as soon as I caught wind of the new album, I whipped out my debit card; it’s still cooling off from the purchase of the latter. I also declared I would only listen to Radiohead for the 10 days following the album’s announcement, a plan to which I adhered gladly until I received the digital files Tuesday night.
While everyone’s spinning over what Radiohead’s method of release will do to the Big Bad Record Industry, there’s a more important query that music fans are scrambling to answer: what does In Rainbows sound like? This seems like a fairly straightforward question, but for those familiar with Radiohead, they’re smarter than the average bear and more diverse to boot. I’m writing this review six listens in and I’m still not quite sure what to make of the new 10-song collection. Though it calls to mind Radiohead of the past, don’t expect a return to straightforward rock or more electronic exploration in the vein of Kid A and Amnesiac. In Rainbows doesn’t explore paranoia or politics, at least not straightforwardly; this album, my friends, is all about beauty.
Let’s start with the title, In Rainbows. Rainbows symbolize lofty hopes and devastating risks at the same time. You could trail a rainbow your whole life, seeking out its beauty and its fortune, but if you change your angle the whole thing could disappear. That said, this new album explores themes of love, but don’t mistake that for sentimentality. Yorke’s sharp and neurotic lyrics explore hope and happiness, but they also hint at unrequited feelings and despair. He sings of complacency and desire, but it’s never easy or simple, which makes this album, despite its lush and harmonious themes, almost as unsettling as past efforts Kid A and OK Computer.
Album opener “15 Step” begins with percussive hand claps and is eventually joined by a chord progression that rises and falls like a beating heart. Already the album sounds fun, unlike past release Hail to the Thief, as “15 Step” progresses and is peppered with a children’s choir screaming “Hey!” Eventually, the percussion becomes more frantic as echoing held-out chords pile up beneath the main beat, which ends in an uncertain fade out. “15 Step” serves as exposition and introduction at the same time; it calls to mind the old Radiohead we’ve all known, loved, and agonized over, but it also shows a softer, more elegant approach to production that carries through the rest of In Rainbows.
This theme continues through rock-driven number “Bodysnatchers,” which features dirty guitar and a persistent bass line yet still maintains the eerie elegance and calm restraint of the first track. The album then moves towards OK Computer-era track “Nude.” Despite its origins, it fits in perfectly with the album’s theme of beauty. Harmonizing “oohs” in the background are cut up under straightforward drums as the track moves into reverb-drenched vocals. The track is characterized by a bright guitar and low urgent strings interrupted by overhead violins. It’s a slow and gorgeous number, as is subsequent track “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” which moves from an optimistic introduction into a tale of sad and destructive love. “Why should I stay here, why should I stay?” sings Yorke. “I’d be crazy not to follow where you lead. Your eyes, they turn me.”
Aside from the constant presence of string arrangements throughout the album, Radiohead also seems to have channeled old soul ballads in many of these new songs. “All I Need” features a fuzz bass and sparse, floating sounds. Bells chime aloud with the oddly-timed drums, and a rattling background noise contrasts the mournful vocals, which paint a portrait of a desperate lover who goes unnoticed by the object of his affection. “Faust Arp” almost sounds like a demo, as acoustic progressions and strings back occasionally double tracked vocals, but is as powerful as the more produced tracks.
Album standout “Reckoner” combines a percussive shaker and drums combo, with quick guitar and bass together. Yorke sings in a high but soulful vibrato truly evocative of a soul standard. Following a great drum fill, pure chordal harmonies, keyboards, and guitars kick in as a backdrop behind the continued high vocal melody. The strings build underneath to a gorgeously creepy climax before returning to the introductory theme. The ballads continue with “House of Cards,” which features loudly upstroked guitar starting and stopping and high, echoed vocals in the vein of Prince, which proclaim “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover.”
The biggest return to Radiohead of yesteryear is the anxious “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which features half-step descents and a fast-paced drum beat. The backing vocals, in octaves, are panned and complemented by a seemingly naked main vocal in the center. The album ends unpredictably with piano closer “Videotape,” in which Yorke sings “you are my center when I spin away out of control on videotape” and hints towards being unable to face the one he loves before he dies. Despite the depressing theme, the album still ends on a note of sad optimism. “No matter what happens now, I shouldn’t be afraid,” Yorke sings, “because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Just like trailing a rainbow, he seems to have sought happiness, and though he’s left with nothing, it was worth it, because the chase was beautiful.
So how does this record stand up against the five impeccable albums (sorry, Pablo Honey) that preceded it? This release is what we rock-critiquing folk like to call a “grower.” At first, fans may find its soft and sparse arrangements an off-putting tangent of former releases, but, with each listen, In Rainbows gains new depth and desirability and just may be Radiohead’s strongest record since OK Computer. Either way, it’s certainly the most beautiful collection of songs Radiohead’s ever put together and is truly deserving of the hype — and the wait.