After the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003 and the accompanying EP Com Lag (2+2=5), Radiohead were released from their contractual obligations with Parlophone and its parent company EMI, ending their long association which stretched back to their debut Pablo Honey. Upon leaving the company Thom Yorke described the traditional record industry as a “decaying business model”, a notion supported by EMI’s purchase by venture capitalists Terra Firma. They are not the only artist to speak out against them; Blur criticised them in the song “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” long before the equity firm bought them out, while more recently Lily Allen has blamed the redundancies enforced by the new owners for the delay in releasing her sophomore album. Against this milieu they decided their seventh studio album would initially be available as a download only, and the price would be determined by the buyer. Ten days before it was released digitally they announced on their blog on official page Dead Air Space that it would be called In Rainbows, a curiously childlike and wondrous title. Obviously this brought a lot of media attention. According to recent analysis of the digital downloads by music rights holders, and despite the fact that theoretically it was available for free, the album was still heavily pirated online. The album was released physically in December 2007 by XL recordings for those who still hankered after a tangible object. A deluxe disc was available for £40, aimed at the vast number of Radiohead completists who owned all the Japanese imports. In the early rush of press releases and commotion surrounding the album’s public entrance, there were various utterances attributed to the band espousing the belief that this was their Revolver, their definitive collection. It certainly feels concise in comparison to Hail to the Thief, which had at least two too many songs on it.
The primary themes of the album are ones of alienation, paranoia, of temporal and emotional dislocation. Each song on the album is an encapsulated narrative, a self-enclosed world into which you are cast adrift. Ten perfectly formed songs comprise the album, while the discbox houses a second CD of bonus material. Because of the songs structure I find it best to approach each song individually in order to come to some form of comprehension of the whole.
A processed drum rhythm announces the record on “15 Step”, with Yorke declaiming “How come I end up where I started”. So far, so post-OK Computer Radiohead. Skittering rhythm - check, paranoid vocals – check etcetera. However on 23 seconds Phil Selway’s hypnotic acoustic drumbeat kicks in, all tight snare and clipped hi-hat, mirroring the processed drumbeat, building on it, enveloping it. On 43 seconds, the first guitar line of the album commences. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar phrase is a complete revelation; the warmth of the tone, the subtle nuances and the intricacies of his playing are breathtaking. Those more used to his bombastic playing on earlier records will be surprised. Greenwood junior has always been Radiohead’s secret weapon, from the moment he joined his elder brother’s band. His ability to take a song and completely unhinge it, taking it into new and exciting avenues has never been in question. That is why this phrase, so simple and yet so rich and perfect in execution, is such a joy. Around the two and a half minute mark the song breaks down, the processed beat rejoins along with found sounds, sampled children’s speech and Yorke’s schizoid vocals. Then the rhythm section propels the track forward with Colin Greenwood’s effortlessly funky bass line and Selway’s drum beat. The whole song is so well cadenced, with the various layers interwoven perfectly.
“Bodysnatchers” is another surprise. Hail to the Thief was hailed by many because it was perceived as a return to Radiohead’s earlier musical ventures. Essentially this comes down to them ‘plugging in’; Britain’s musical press is rockcentric and ultimately fears electronic music, both aurally and ideologically. Since OK Computer there has been a noticeable aversion to guitars in Radiohead’s music, although it has to be pointed out that both Kid A and Amnesiac feature many tracks that contain guitars, but that are just utilised in different ways. They are textured, layered rather than providing the focal point for the song. Hail to the Thief opened with “2+2=5”, which itself begun symbolically with the sound of a guitar being plugged in. “Bodysnatchers” is the heaviest, most frantic on the album and is probably the most frenetic since “Electioneering” on OK Computer. It starts with a fuzztone driven, dropped D riff. Once the whole band kicks in it sounds not unlike a dirty revved up version of White Album era Beatles, ending with half a minute of furious riffing and Jonny Greenwood emitting frenzied, strangled notes from his Telecaster. To put it bluntly, it rocks.
“Nude” began life in 1997, and has gone through various permutations before finding itself on In Rainbows in its new guise. It is a wonderful example of a songwriter, dedicated to his craft, refusing to let a good melody or idea go. It begins in a swirl of strings and descending vocal lines, with Phil Selway’s rimshot snare and a glimmering glissando guitar joining before Colin Greenwood’s dub influenced bass line begins. The track is heart rendering, aching, and yearning. The clean guitar refrain resembles nothing more than cracked Philly soul. Yorke’s voice soars and freewheels above the mix. However the boy meets girl scenario of classic soul is replaced with cautionary tales of not getting any big ideas. On 3 minutes 14 seconds the multi-tracked vocals reach for the heights. Strings, full of tension, strive to match Yorke all the way. The eternal paradox surrounding Radiohead is that how can something so well crafted and beautiful sound so close to collapse.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is the song in which all the ideas that Radiohead possess about their sound is distilled to the most success. Selway counts them in with four taps of his sticks, before starting a perfunctory solid drum beat. Ed O’Brien’s guitar motif of four minor key finger picked arpeggios is mirrored by Jonny Greenwood. It’s not the same refrain however; it intertwines with it, creates a new space, a fresh narrative for the song. Colin Greenwood’s bass is solid root note fundamentals, underpinning the guitar work.
“In the deepest ocean, the bottom of the sea.....”
The song builds and builds, it is claustrophobic, as though it has been submerged. Yorke’s vocals sound as if they have been recorded at the bottom of the ocean, yet the second (and third) guitars and Ed O’Brien’s backing vox intersect with them opening new vistas of imagination. It feels so organic, as if it hasn’t been written by five people but trapped in a net. As the song advances it yearns for a crescendo. One of Radiohead’s key traits is their control of song structure and the creation of tension within the construct. Unlike many of their contemporaries they are able to deliver the pay off. Just after the three minute mark Yorke declares “I get eaten by the world, and weird fishes” and the guitars are replaced by Greenwood’s intricate playing on the ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument). The electronic music swells into a new section on 3 minutes 41 seconds with disturbing white noise, electric glissandos that glisten beautifully, fade and decay while the first guitar refrain repeats.
“All I Need” begins with Phil Selway’s syncopated, clipped drum rhythm and a wash of synthesis, before a 5 string bass line introduces the main melody of the song. Radiohead’s devouring of all things electronic (particularly 20th century composers such as Reich, Glass, Messaien, Stockhausen and the output of Warp records) is evident on this track. The ambience is pure Boards of Canada, and is genuinely disarming in its beauty and frailty. This song highlights the feeling that has been growing and becoming more palpable on each track; the sense of a beating human heart lying beneath the sentiments. They had previously been criticised for their apparent reluctance to create a dialogue with their audience, preferring to use obtuse wordplay to convey complex emotions and politics. Universal themes and heartfelt emotions are perceptible, rather than the fragmented lyricism that normally characterises Yorke’s writing. The song is elegiac, but due to its sentiments becomes the album’s pulse, its touchstone. Yorke proclaims that he is “an animal that just wants to share your life”. Found sounds, sampled fragments contribute to the fractured soundscape which is lightened by plaintive glockenspiel. On 2 minutes 46 seconds minor key piano chords enter, cymbals crash and the vocals soar and undulate before returning. “All I Need” presents the album’s bruised face, a tarnished and blemished heart, a soul that wants to be loved. A soul that cannot change.
On first listen “Faust Arp” appears to be the weakest song in the collection. It begins with a B minor chord and is structured around this key. Its lyrics are nonsensical, yet further listening deepens and enriches the experience. Gently bowed strings and Yorke’s downbeat delivery conspire to drag you further in. While the song’s meaning is unfathomable, again it is the quality of the songcraft that stops this being a mere throwaway track. It is bucolic, pastoral and has more than a hint of Nick Drake about it. This resemblance is particularly enhanced by the version on “Scotch Mist” (the webcast they made at their Oxfordshire studio on New Year’s Eve 2007), where Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood play the song on a hillside in the country. By the last draw of bow on cello it has ensnared you but such is the track’s brevity by the time it has worked its charm it has gone, clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 9 seconds.
“Reckoner” opens with strident drums, with heavy use of the crash cymbal. After 10 seconds the main guitar phrase begins, three simply picked chords. Thom Yorke’s vocal on this song is tremulous, soaring, gospel like. Much like on “Nude” and “All I Need” it transports the listener to a different plane away from the complications of our everyday, humdrum existence. It ends with a rousing string coda, backed with aspirational jazz inflected guitar chords.
“House of Cards” begins with the couplet “I don’t wanna be your friend/I just wanna be your lover”, intoned over a serene guitar line. There is a lot to surprise on this album, and that is high on the list. The couplet could have come from any one of a number of pop songs, so its use in a Radiohead song is strange. In the past it could have been perceived as being subversive, using the lexicon of pop to comment and create discourse on the subject, yet on this album it truly feels sincere. The vocal register that Yorke uses is deeper, richer with less of the caterwauling to be found on Radiohead’s edgier material. It has soul. This newfound candid nature could be perplexing to diehard fans but I find it refreshing. Yorke’s vocals are swathed in reverb, while Greenwood uses an Ebow on his guitar to create an ethereal, haunting effect over the song. The accompanying music video, filmed using a geometric mapping visualisation technique to capture three dimensional close ups of Thom Yorke singing and multiple lasers to create remarkable cityscapes, is truly groundbreaking as it used no conventional film equipment in its production. Seven albums in and it appears that there is no comfort zone for them, they consistently utilise technology to push the envelope in terms of the band’s presentation.
If “All I Need” is the album’s love song, then “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is the albums seduction song. It begins with an acoustic guitar picking out a chord pattern in an open D tuning, gradually descending. The song is a caustic tale depicting a one night stand as a nightmarish conceit. The guitars interlace while backing vocals swoop and soar over the top. On the Scotch Mist version Jonny Greenwood uses the ondes martenot to harmonise with the vocals, but this unfortunately is not included on the album version. The song drives inexorably onward to its logical conclusion, and after the redemptive spirit shown on earlier songs the mistrust and ache exhibited is something of an intrusion.
“Videotape”, funereal and distant, closes the album. The lyrical theme concerns a person at the “pearly gates” of heaven reviewing their life captured on home movies, debating their worth and what they have achieved. It is a beautiful piece of music, and the album version is augmented with glitch-style percussive beats and flicks. Despite its austere nature it is an incredibly moving song, based around a simple piano theme. It showcases long time producer Nigel Godrich’s effortless skill in melding together layers of acoustic and synthetic sound.
In Rainbows is a beautiful album that allows it to transcend discussion of the ethics concerned in its release. The experimental sections are firmly wound into the melodies of more traditional song structures. It does appear to be an epithet of everything they have ever wished to create, the logical conclusion of their previous records. The combination of post-rock, electronic bricolage, patterns, pop, dub, jazz, synths, strings, acoustic instruments, frenzy, restraint, dreams, beauty, frailty, pain, anguish, schisms, fragments, paranoia, rock and roll, hope and fear is well measured and delivered in exemplary fashion. By this stage in their career Radiohead are so consummate in the studio I would back them to deliver at the very least an interesting record; but this is so much more. It is perfect on every level, and they can only get better from here on in.