A Steal at Any Priceby Todd Simmons
Radiohead: In Rainbows
It’s ancient history at this point that Radiohead released their first new record in four years with a pay-what-you-want download on their website, months in advance of a standard release. While fans rejoiced and scooped up the “free” record, the music industry shuddered and Gene Simmons of Kiss asked, “Are they on crack?” But we might have hurried past the real story: In Rainbows is the most cohesive and sensual album the band has ever made, and one that allows every member to shine in a way that seems almost effortless. While economists and music industry experts debate the revolutionary impact of a platinum band leaking their own record for what amounts to hefty gratuities, the rest of us can marvel at this collection of songs from a veteran group at the height of its abilities. Whether or not the record’s confident, relaxed quality sprang from the opportunity to finally create without any label interference, In Rainbows is a shifting of gears from the dread and defiance of Hail to the Thief to a sound that is both dreamy and propulsive. It’s the finest record of 2007 at any price.
Hurtling along a terrain of dizzy rhythms, the album’s opener “15 Step” whirls out of the gate with drum and bass–like beats and Thom Yorke’s undulating vocals:
How come I end up where I started
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then you cut the string
A jazzy guitar progression mellows out the upper layer, while the frenetic pace of the rhythm section carries on below. “Bodysnatchers” follows, a surging tune with taut drums and dense, driving guitar chords that has Yorke bellowing, “I have got no idea / What / You are talking about / I’m trapped inside this body / And I can’t / Get out!” The faster and louder songs on In Rainbows find Yorke passionate but less feisty than on Hail to the Thief. There is a seasoned coolness to the record’s first single, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” a cautionary sexual tale of trolling around the urban nightlife landscape while not in control of one’s faculties. While the song skips along to a coiled, infectious beat, Yorke, aware of his prodigious talents, lies back and rises up to hit his mark only when he needs to.
The spirited opening tunes notwithstanding, In Rainbows is Radiohead’s least angry record to date. It is no straightforward production and not exactly jovial, but it is a stunning collection of songs through and through. The lyrics are sometimes cryptic yet always evocative, and Yorke’s voice is as amazing as it’s ever been. His lilting falsetto and soulful crooning is spine-tingling on songs like the Portishead-esque “Nude.” On “Reckoner” he sings:
Because we separate
Like ripples on a blank shore (in rainbows)
With multiple wrenching vocal tracks layered upon each other, the jaunty yet wistful gospel track evokes Antony and the Johnsons. (Yorke told BBC radio that “Reckoner” is the center of the album, with the other tracks flowing to and away from it.)
With six previous records and a dozen or more quality B-sides under their belts, Radiohead has settled into a groove that is a deft amalgamation of their various shades of experimental music, and encompasses aggressive rock songs, hypnotic mid-tempo tunes, and oddly timed ballads. In Rainbows is colored with an atmosphere that may have seeped into the music from the dilapidated house in Oxford that the band recorded some of it in. Yorke told BBC radio that they wanted to make a more “direct” and “energetic” record, and that the band really wanted his voice out in front again as it was on his 2006 solo effort, The Eraser. They were also urged by producer Nigel Godrich to drastically narrow down the number of songs they usually bring into the studio (there were dozens during the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions) and concentrate their energy on those. That narrowed focus has clearly paid off.
Radiohead has the uncanny ability to take chilling (some would say gloomy) themes and transform them into albums that are hauntingly beautiful. This is largely due to the band’s democratic approach to collaboration, gently led by Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. The members of Radiohead have been friends since they were teenagers, and their faith in one another seems evident. Despite possessing significant chops, Greenwood is willing to put his guitar aside at times in order to navigate various electronic gadgets or play the keyboards while Yorke and Ed O’Brien handle guitar duties. There are songs in which the mighty rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway simply step outside for a cup of tea while the machines take over. And yet this is a band that has been gigging and recording for over twenty years now. Nobody’s face is on the album covers and nobody (including cutting-edge producer Godrich and visual collaborator Stanley Donwood) seems overly concerned with taking credit.
Thom Yorke drives the process with singular vocal style, a unique creative vision, and a determination to operate with integrity. Jonny Greenwood’s inventive guitar riffing and instinct for electronic sound provide further fuel to the fire. Both Yorke and Greenwood have produced solo projects in the last few years, and perhaps the result is less of a need to squeeze all of their ideas into a Radiohead album. Yorke released The Eraser between recording sessions for In Rainbows. An electronic album featuring Yorke’s singing over clipped and fuzzy beats, the record was a finalist for the Mercury Prize. In 2003 Greenwood scored the documentary Bodysong; he has since “curated” a reggae compilation called Jonny Greenwood Is the Controller and composed the score for the new P. T. Anderson film, Their Will Be Blood. These additional outlets for sound experimentation could be one of the reasons there is more space on In Rainbows, which exhibits more fluidity than any previous record. Their other albums swerved into oblique corners, leaving traditional rock structures behind while they stirred up ominous and ethereal pieces of music rather than actual songs. In contrast, every track on In Rainbows is a song in the traditional sense, regardless of its atypical structure or oddly timed beats.
That Radiohead are still the most dynamic live band around is impressive. Many bands lose their steam without the aid of studio effects, but Radiohead strides with even more intensity on stage. Radiohead concerts are moving and explosive, and with dozens of hook-filled songs to pull from, you will never hear the same set twice. The band’s tours sell out immediately regardless of venue size or album sales. The anticipation of them stepping on to the stage is palpable in the crowd; there’s a jet-plane roar when the first chords ring out from the band.
Radiohead’s OK Computer show in Los Angeles was the most thrilling gig I’d ever seen until I took the ferry over to Liberty State Park for the Amnesiac tour in August 2001, weeks before 9/11. The stage was erected on New Jersey landfill with an audience view of the harbor, the city’s bridges, and the Manhattan skyline at night. The shimmering Twin Towers rose up behind the stage as Radiohead tore through a set of big, electronic rock and roll that was utterly breathtaking.
The most uncompromisingly innovative studio and live band of their generation, Radiohead have a healthy distrust of the system. Any system. So it comes as little surprise that they would throw a wrench in the music-industry works by releasing In Rainbows directly to their fans. The band’s fear and loathing of corrupt powers and bullies with credentials is well documented—their previous album was entitled Hail to the Thief, after all. But despite all that, there is something decidedly graceful and refined about the new record.
In Rainbows could describe that striking but elusive thing that is impossible to capture and is magical every time it’s spied on the horizon. Of course, it could also be the kind of oily rainbow you find in Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek—pretty to look at but sinister in nature. Either way, it’s as potent as anything we have heard from Radiohead. Deftly produced, textured with layers of tasty guitar, and highlighting the strongest vocals in rock and roll, it is further evidence that there isn’t a more compelling band at work today.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.