Hi TL, my 3rd review. As usual, comments complaints suggestions etc all welcome. Hope you enjoy!
Radiohead – In Rainbows
Radiohead in 2007 were raising a lot of questions. Going purely off their studio releases (ignoring the fact a lot of these songs were played live years before the record was made available online in a pay-what-you-want model), it had been four years since Hail to the Thief, and that album went in a direction people weren’t expecting. The transition between Kid A (2000) and OK Computer (1997) marked what people thought would be the end of the relatively standard alt rock Radiohead presented. 2001’s Amnesiac all but confirmed that. But then Hail to the Thief threw the seemingly obvious progression of the band into question.
It kept elements of the electronics so prevalent in Kid A and Amnesiac, but more standardised song structure returned. More traditional instrumentation returned. Even the message was more centred on the political and social commentary of OK Computer and even The Bends (1995). 2004 yielded a failed EP with nothing interesting on it but a Four Tet remix of one of Thief’s best songs. So people were left to question where the band was going. Had they found a balance? Would they continue to progress into the more experimental side? Or would they return to the sound that made them so popular in the first place?
In answer, they bought more instruments, and released a record that was far different to what had come before. The record kept the digital manipulation, production and engineering of the previous records, but instead of manipulating the grandiose, scoping music of its predecessors, it tinkered with personal songs, “songs of seduction”, according to Thom Yorke, acoustic and classically influenced. That said, there are elements to it that are as fitting a definition of the band’s sound as “Everything in its Right Place”, “Idioteque”, “Pyramid Song”, or “2+2=5”.
The opener, “15 Step”, is a clatter of distorted, muddled drums and claps, Yorke’s voice dipping and oscillating in pitch until the Greenwoods kick in with rhythmic guitar and bass. It gives little of the album away, teases what is essentially generic Radiohead sound, offering hints of the production’s tinkering, echoed choral voices, a scream, and a break of instrumentation that is their signature, to build a song, and break it down into pure music – they were doing it from “Climbing Up the Walls” and “Exit Music” to here.
If anything, “Bodysnatchers” isn’t expected after “15 Step”. Its distorted bass riff and traditional drums that kick in sound like a real return to their pre-Kid A sound. Yet it is apparent how far the band has progressed in making what is a simple rock song, the production offers far more subtleties, a looping synth line flows in and out of audibility, guitars layer on top of each other, the song slowly builds up and up until there’s even a solo. Harks back to rock songs like “Electioneering” or “My Iron Lung” but so much more mature.
“Nude” is a song that has existed in some form since the nineties, but the way it comes into In Rainbows is again an unexpected progression – it seems as if the album’s track chronology is echoing that of the discography. It is a ballad, Yorke’s vocals offering “oohs” instead of lyrics, floating along in perfect harmony to the instrumentation which brings back the electronics and heavy production, looping and layering it all again and again on top of a sonorous bass line that fades away to allow Yorke to sing in his trademark (sorry, Matt Bellamy) falsetto that sounds as if he is singing in a vast hallway, creating a feeling of loving loneliness as he laments:
“But there'll be something missing/
Now that you've found it, it's gone/”
“Nude” is as beautiful a song as the band have produced. Strings – actual strings, not synthesised, provided by The Millennia Ensemble, give the song a feeling more of classical composition than the electronic or rock songs that came before. It is one of Yorke’s most personal, and sets the stage for the rest of the record to flow more naturally.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” comes next, “Arpeggi” again being one of their older unreleased songs reimagined. It offers similar structure with the layered looping guitar over bass and the traditional erratic time signature of Phil Selway’s drums, manipulated vocals, and hints of electronic and classical production pulling it along. The song steadily increases in pitch, adding more and more instrumentation, the same build up, what we come to expect from them, rare crash symbols turning the pitch up higher, the song becoming more and more urgent until, of course, it all breaks. Radiohead are a band that thrives on tension, to build and break effortlessly. All five of them can be clearly singled out as they harmonise under a combination of electronics, vocals and classic instrumentation. The pitch changes continue, the bass thudding us into where we want to go, the instrumentation goes and on on and then, yes, it stops.
Enter “All I Need”, slower to begin with, a very deep looped bass line, lighter drumming, hints of guitar reverberations, and Yorke’s voice is deeper, slower, romantic, another unusually personal song coming from someone who is so traditionally closeted. He sings of “I” and “You” – he’s waiting in the wings, or trapped in a hot car, in the middle of her picture, she is all he needs. The second verse offers chimes and feels happier, but after the second chorus, the traditional structure is shattered in a wonderful climax of hammered piano chords and despairing yells, every emotion of longing crammed into a few seconds that grind to a shuddering halt.
“Faust Arp” brings back the strings to accompany Yorke’s acoustic guitar and rapid, rapid vocals. It is a brief solo effort on the album, two and half minutes of a personal moment, the string work, acoustic guitar and Yorke’s vocals synchronising perfectly. It is as beautiful a song as “Nude” but created in a totally different way, a testament to how diverse a group they really are.
“Reckoner” is every bit an anthem, a ‘banger’, to be crass, as they have ever produced. Starting off with crash symbols and the same kind of looping guitar common on the album so far, Yorke comes in at some of his highest falsetto, and to begin with it sounds as if it could be another mournful ballad, but then piano comes in, a bass drives more and more voices and echoes into harmony with Yorke’s and strings bring it all together. The talent and togetherness, being able to bring everything in one, breaking into a vocal harmony, the continuous pitch changes that fit so well with the sombre, personal mood, all of it just works perfectly. When the song resumes from its break with Yorke’s vocals straining to cry “reckoner” for long enough, the strings take over and lead the instrumentation into a stunning close. It existed before, but how different it is now. Given the three years spent in and out of production, it is a testament to what the band can do.
“House of Cards” is fittingly down tempo after “Reckoner”. It again is personal, but simpler this time. “I don’t wanna be your friend/ I just wanna be your lover”, Yorke’s echoing, reverberating voice says in a matter of fact, conversational tone. A relatively upbeat guitar riff plucks along, a simple drumbeat, beautifully contemplated by scratching guitar reverb, intermittent bass and the strings. “The infrastructure will collapse”, Yorke warns, as the ‘support’ for the song grows increasingly tense, the percussion struggling to be heard, being distorted, more discontented voices being added, all of it slowly. “Denial, denial, your ears should be burning” Yorke closes the song, the production taking over fully now, echoes of the beginning still there, disintegrating into the orchestra.
“Jigsaw Falling into Place” picks on the silence and starts as acoustic as “Faust Arp”, but in come drums to support it and vocal harmonies hum the lyrics into action. Yorke’s lyrics often blend into songs, hard to make out, not always of great significance to the song (in this song he offers a sound opinion on this – “Words are blunt instruments/ words are sawn off shotguns”) but here they are clear, and as personal as ever before, taking centre stage. He is deeper than usual as he recounts, resisting the urge to break into his usual voice after the break and the harmonies intensify, but then he can’t fight anymore – “The beat goes round and round!” He yells:
“Come on and let it out!/
Come on and let it out!/
Come on and let it out!/
Come on and let it out!/
Before you run away from me/
Before you’re lost between the notes/
Just as you take the mic/
Just as you dance dance dance…/”
His voice jumps notes, pitches, everything until he is forcing out a stream of words as the song reaches its peak, descending almost into madness before order is restored with the harmonies. It is one of Radiohead’s best songs in terms of its delivery, using a simple structure to maximum effect.
The album closes with the simply harrowing “Videotape”, the piano line that is honestly devastating, a sonorous bass line, percussion that struggles against the slow, plodding progression as Yorke sings of death – trying to fight against the inevitable course of life perhaps. Yorke’s own voice and those of the rest of the band come in again in harmony layering over each other as the percussion tries to find a rhythm but can’t escape the thundering bass drum.
“This is my way of saying goodbye/
Cause I can't do it face to face/”
Yorke mumbles, at his emotional best as we leave the album, the last few words:
“Because I know today has been/
The most perfect day I've ever seen/”
Offering a rhyming couplet to end the album as Shakespeare would, the percussion gives up and the piano continues and eventually disappears into nothingness. A tragically haunting end, another beautiful song, and the culmination of a phenomenal work of art.
In Rainbows is the creation of five wonderfully talented musicians that had their beginnings in alt rock, took an excursion into the alternative, carrying everything they had learned from their past records and continuing to add to it, surprising everyone with how personal and down to earth it is. The production is first class, bringing all the ideas and individualism of Yorke, O’Brien, Selway and the Greenwoods together, the classical strings fit perfectly into the album’s mood, all of it mixed and engineered into the touching, lasting memory of what Radiohead could and still could do.
15 Step – 83%
Bodysnatchers – 80%
Nude – 87%
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi – 83%
All I Need – 86%
Faust Arp – 81%
Reckoner – 92%
House of Cards – 79%
Jigsaw Falling into Place – 95%
Videotape – 85%
Overall score – 85% - Exceptional
DISCLAIMER – THESE SCORES ARE NOT AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OBJECTIVE QUALITY OF THE MUSIC. THEY ARE REFLECTIVE PURELY OF HOW MUCH I ENJOYED EACH SONG, WITH A GUIDELINE AS TO WHAT THAT MEANS TO ME.
0-10% - Awful
10-20 – Incredibly poor
20-30 – Missable
30-40 – Below average
40-50 – Not great
50-60 – Average
60-70 – Better than average
70-80 – Good
80-85 – Very good
85-90 – Exceptional
90-95 – Must listen
95-100 – Seminal, masterpiece
While there was an “In Rainbows: CD 2” that came with the discbox release of the album, this is mainly previously unreleased B Sides or dismissed material and was not intended to be considered part of the main album. It is worth listening to, but not particularly notable. It comes off more as filler, and Yorke explained that when the band began work on In Rainbows in 2004, the lack of direction and pressure meant they slipped in focus, ending up creating music that was almost trying to sound like what they thought their sound was.
There are some highlights, as they are still music from a great band, and demonstrate some superb instrumentation and harmonising, but in general CD2 comes off as unnecessary and dull. The production is limited and nowhere near to the same level, and it is as if the correct decisions the band made in creating In Rainbows don’t exist on CD2, instead demonstrating poor execution and a general unpolished feeling. But hey, it’s still better than Pablo Honey (1993).
Mk 1 – 72%
Down is the New Up – 77%
Go Slowly – 73%
Mk 2 – 63%
Last Flowers to the Hospital – 59%
Up on the Ladder – 82%
Bangers and Mash – 64%
4 Minute Warning – 65%
Overall score – 69.375% - Better than average