In Rainbows (Bonus Disc)
Produced by Nigel Godrich
If our own Arts Editor Sarah Dupuis hadn’t claimed reviewing rights to Radiohead’s In Rainbows before I could, an entirely different story would’ve been told. In short, I would’ve torn Radiohead a new basement door for not living up to its own standards, or what I’d perceived them to be. I owe Dupuis a debt of gratitude for preventing me from making such a mistake. In Rainbows is, I’ll admit now, quite satisfying, and it was my selfish here-I-am-now-entertain-me attitude that kept me from understanding that. The album has an oceanic serenity that could be confused for dullness until you let the majesty of “House of Cards” or “Nude” permeate you. So much of it cannot be scrutinized and enjoyed at the same time before you’ve initially taken a more relaxed perspective.
Radiohead brought as much finality as one could possibly bring to an album-closer with the funeral march of “Videotape,” so what does the new bonus disc to In Rainbows bring to the equation, if anything? Bands have released extra tracks before (B-sides, demos, live versions) to pad up deluxe editions of their albums, but Radiohead’s gone to some length to make this disc more of a “disc two” than a “bonus disc.” For one thing, it begins with an instrumental segue from “Videotape,” as if the listener is about to enter a realm after death through a curtain of liquid piano echo. That track, “Mk 1,” is one of two brief instrumental pieces included, but neither has an under-produced, throwaway quality to them.
The interludes ably complement the six remaining songs, but they’re ultimately disposable. This makes the In Rainbows bonus disc into the album that everyone accused “Amnesiac” of being: a cobbling-together of leftover material from a previous recording session as opposed to a separate entity. The quality of these leftovers, however, just serves to show how fantastic the main meal was.
I was sold after hearing “Down Is the New Up.” It has enough studio effects and overdubs to perk up the ears of studious, detail-oriented fans and it still delivers a truly gripping Radiohead moment when the violas make their crushing entrance while the drums thunder back in reply. Thom Yorke sounds like he’s on an ego trip, taunting some poor soul whose life has taken a wrong turn: “You’re future’s bleak / You’re so last week.” Either Thom’s gone evil on us or it’s a successful bit of character acting.
Or maybe he’s just airing out one of the darker facets of his personality, because later on in “Last Flowers” he turns right back around and inhabits the broken man he was jawing at in “Down Is the New Up.” “Last Flowers” has the most raw arrangement out of any song in either disc of In Rainbows, and it features one of the most pained melodies of Radiohead’s entire catalog. Thom sounds wounded by life and the unthinkable prospect of it going on when he says, “I can’t face the evening straight / and you can’t offer me escape.” The chord progression nearly offers resolution in the song’s chorus, only to snatch it away. “Last Flowers” lingers in your mind well after the final piano notes fade out.
“Go Slowly” further alludes to suicide but to a much weaker effect. Its plodding 4/4 tempo and general predictability make it a surprisingly generic song by Radiohead’s standards, and it even bears a passing resemblance to the Oasis song “Talk Tonight.” (Sacrilege!) It’s still quite listenable, but it’s easily the weakest song here. The remaining songs are still good enough to make this the most consistent set of non-LP material Radiohead’s ever made. It more than makes up for the dreadful experimentations in B-sides for their previous album Hail to the Thief.
With a bruising lead guitar riff, “Bangers and Mash” is a jagged guitar rocker in the same vein as “Bodysnatchers” but with even more menace (“Bit me, bit me, bit me / I’ve got the poison!”). Radiohead’s rhythm section showcases its diversity on “Up on the Ladder” whose percussion is the throb of a drum machine with the faint rattling of both wood and metal deep in the mix. Thom pulls off a Doctor Who reference (“I’m stuck in the Tardis”) surprisingly well with help from a world-weary bass line from Colin Greenwood which helps paint a gloomy scene of a universe whose infinity is not awe-inspiring but eternally repetitive.
Nothing, however, surprises more than the finale, “4-Minute Warning.” Its mood and restraint are perfectly surreal and like nothing else the band has done since “The Bends.” The title refers to the amount of time citizens could expect between the launch of a nuclear missile and its arrival on British soil during the Cold War. The jarring and simultaneously upbeat calmness of the song feels more like a last goodbye before oblivion than any maudlin gloominess could portray. In that respect, “4-Minute Warning” would’ve been a superior closing song to In Rainbows than “Videotape,” and Radiohead could hypothetically end their career with this understated masterpiece. If this disc is any indication, though, they may have just entered their prime.