Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

5.0 ★/10.0

Buffered by the controversy of its unique release, few will be able to judge In Rainbows simply for what it is. Indeed, it seems that almost every review has begun with a discussion about the “pay-as-much-as-you-want” internet-only release (this one included). Perhaps it’s justifiable. The creativity and balls that Radiohead showed with their experiment was refreshing, to say the least. Nevermind the implications it suggested to the music industry; just think about the profound experience fans must’ve had, waiting till midnight on October 9’th, 2007. Released merely ten days after it’s announcement, In Rainbows never had a chance to lose momentum. There was no chance for a leak. Fans didn’t have to deal with that slow anti-climatic process of waiting months and months after a release date is announced, then drag themselves to the nearest record store during their lunch break. Everyone heard the album at the exact same time and, for a single night, a record release was once again an event. But with this understanding of how exciting the experience of the album was, it might be easy to overlook the material itself. So it's relieving that after the dust settles, In Rainbows remains one of those rare albums that actually completely lives up to its hype. Quite simply, every single song works; an accomplishment which, this late in Radiohead’s career, may finally be enough to cement their ranking in the same tier as the Fab Four themselves.

That often-made comparison between Radiohead and The Beatles may be a bit of a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true, especially when examined on an album-to-album basis. You see, Pablo Honey represents the entirety of The Beatles' pre-Rubber Soul work - pleasant, but ultimately shallow, dated and ordinary. The Bends, much like Rubber Soul, was the band's first sign of ambition. Although firmly rooted in the same style, it showed mastery of the form, greater depth, and hints of future experimentations. Taking the place of Revolver, OK Computer pushed that adventurism to the forefront and introduced the “new Radiohead” as we know them now - paranoid, uneasy, and brilliant. Kid A, however, was their Sgt. Pepper. It was their single-minded and bodied statement, their great leap into the unknown and their vie for perfection. And then they dropped their White Album with Hail To The Thief: a sprawling work that went in all directions at once. So, as you guessed it, In Rainbows completes the parallel and functions as Radiohead's Abbey Road. On it, Radiohead take their last 10 years of experimentation and graft it onto their old style of songwriting, resulting in a work that concisely sums up their career in 10 distinct tracks.

Each song captures a different side of Radiohead, clear already from the drastic differences between the two leading singles; “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” plays like “A Wolf At The Door” sped up, capturing the frantic Radiohead in their most paranoid form, whereas the dub version of long time fan-favorite, “Nude,” is quite possibly the most beautiful and reserved thing they’ve ever put to tape. But, of course, it has major competition with “Reckoner”. Initially, the album’s centerpiece feels underwhelming in comparison to every other track and comes off as the weakest of them all. But as the band has insightfully stated in interviews, In Rainbows’ two halves are held together by the song’s understated pianos and string arrangements, and repeat listens reveal it to be a gorgeous and essential piece of the album.

This brings up another similarity to Abbey Road, which is that In Rainbows is always relentlessly beautiful – warm and lush, where their other albums since the big change in sound (OK Computer and onward), were cold and a little detached. Even Yorke's lyrics open up to some of the accessibility he abandoned after The Bends (“I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover”). Appropriately, “15 Step” feels like their own "Come Together": cool, calculated, groove centered and unafraid of utilizing human sounds, like handclaps and a chorus of cheering children. It introduces the listener to a band that's regained complete control of their direction and production (which is in stark contrast to the Radiohead on Hail To The Thief that sounded nearly possessed; trapped in their own minds and enslaved by their fears). Adversely, “Bodysnatchers” is an unhinged beast, comprised of Yorke’s menacing snarls and some of the most furious Greenwood-signature riffage since “Electioneering.” It’s the kind of song we thought they’d never make again. But then again, the peaceful "House Of Cards" is the kind of song we thought they'd never make, period; a catchy, carefree island theme song, whose only traces of Radiohead-origins lies in the submerged reverb and alien noodling between verses. And it’s just as exhilerating to see an acoustic track making the cut (“Faust ARP”). Even if it’s just an interlude, it prevails as an infinitely re-playable folk song.

In song of the year category, there's “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, where (surprise) arpeggiated guitar arrangements and Ed O’ Brien's stirring background moans strengthen what is already one of the album's most dramatic moments. "All I Need" is even better. The song begins to evolve out of nothingness. A sparse hip hop beat and electronic bass that sounds ready to cough up phlegm makes a spacious atmosphere. Yorke’s voice goes into R&B mode, dishing out sincerely romantic lines. The band tinkers and toys subtly with glockenspiel while bizarre noises rush up and disappear without warning. And then after enough head-bopping, a wonderful piano line rises out of the surface breaking the ever-constant tension. Strings waver, then implode, and Yorke’s voice soars into heaven with the rest of the band ala “Let Down”. But as grand as In Rainbows gets in its most climactic moments, it’s usually defined by spaciousness, and so it’s perfect that it ends with “Videotape”. Once cluttered with symphonic strings and epic guitars in its live incarnation, the studio version barely exists under a quiet piano progression and a deathly electronic march-beat. The minimalism seems to be in direct contrast with the closer of Radiohead’s other magnum-opus, Kid A, and is the final conceptual stamp the album needs to establish it as a complimentary masterpiece to that classic.

It's obvious that Radiohead knew that they knew they were composing a perfect album here. In interviews, Ed O’ Brien called it the last great album they needed in order to secure a legacy, and Thom Yorke cleverly makes his last line on the album, “I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Fans may have trouble shaking off the feeling that the album feels a bit too much like a collection of leftovers from throughout the band’s career, but that too, feels like it was part of the concept. Kid A and In Rainbows form two sides of the same coin. The former is conceptually precise with very few individual moments rising above the overall experience, while the latter is a scattershot collection of nothing but shining individual moments. And both are, track-for-track, two of the most accomplished and stimulating musical works of art of the decade.

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