Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Album Review: Radiohead - In Rainbows

Radiohead - In Rainbows

(Note: This review is for the mp3 release. A separate review for the Discbox will be written upon its arrival.)

(Self Released, 2007)

Grade: 94.7

In Rainbows (the album)
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (mp3)

One day after being "rickrolled" by some jackass with too much time on his/her hands, Radiohead surprised the world with the announcement that their seventh album would be self-released, digitally, in a mere ten days. Okay, maybe the entire world wasn't shocked, as I'm certain there are parts of Africa that could care less about what five British blokes do with their time, let alone their music, but still, you and me and everyone we know had Rainbows on the brain. Personally, I don't think I even counted down the final week to my 21st birthday, but I sure as hell counted down the "release date" for Radiohead's seventh album. Why? Radiohead has a hold on my heart and a special place in my life, all thanks to a bald MTV VJ, a killer performance on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and a little album called OK Computer. The excitement over counting down 'til midnight (again like my 21st birthday) for my personal download link was fairly new to me, as the territory was slightly unfamiliar. I am old enough to remember midnight CD release parties at record stores - the last Radiohead release, 2003's Hail to the Thief, was the last album I bought at a midnight sale - but something about mixing old-school impatience with modern technology made Radiohead's experiment something I wanted to be a part of. Knowing that somewhere on this Earth, a million people (or more) would be sharing a similar experience with me made it even more fun. As cool as Radiohead's social experiment was, though, nothing tops the actual album itself, which is easily Radiohead's best album since Kid A, and their most widely accessible since The Bends.

Listening to In Rainbows, even for the first time, it seemed like Radiohead was more comfortable with these songs than with anything they have released in the past decade, which I presume is a direct result of the band spending two years writing, recording, and playing the songs live (nine of them at least; "Nude" has been around for nearly a decade). Yes, a similar approach was used on Hail to the Thief, but the results here are significantly better. Where Hail sounds like Radiohead made a mixtape of their songs disguised as a record, In Rainbows is a cohesive, near flawless Radiohead album.

There are many reasons why In Rainbows is such a fantastic, fascinating listen. Nicole may have covered many of them in a recent post, but bear with me while I muse on a few observations of my own. For starters, In Rainbows is, at times, the most "rock" Radiohead has been in quite some time. Traces of rock have appeared on each of the band's albums since The Bends, but In Rainbows has so much guitar you might think it was released in 1997 rather than 2007, especially on "Bodysnatchers", which is easily Radiohead's most intense and gnarliest song since "Electioneering". Every time I listen to it I can picture Jonny ripping into his guitar strings, while Thom rapidly shakes his head from shoulder to shoulder as he wails, "I'm aliiiiiiiiive!" I bet this song kills live.

Speaking of live Radiohead, after attending a Radiohead concert in 2003, I walked away from the show with the impression that the live versions of Radiohead's songs are funkier, or at least more bass heavy, than their album counterparts. I was pretty fucking high at that show, I'll grant you, but I'm convinced Radiohead noticed it too, as it seems to have bled over onto In Rainbows' production and mixing. Colin Greenwood's bass work is prominent throughout the album, and Radiohead do sound funkier, at times even soulful and sexy, like an R&B band or Portishead's self-titled album. It doesn't hurt that Thom's lyrics are oftentimes playful, even sexual. It is a unique direction for the band, proving that even when they're comfortable and accessible, Radiohead are still capable of throwing a curve ball in our direction.

Lastly, the most fascinating aspect of In Rainbows is, in this writer's humble opinion, just how accessible the album is. Radiohead have spent most of their career making jarring follow-up albums to excellent, sometimes iconic releases. Many of these albums were growers, albeit growers that yielded good vibrations with each listen. Kid A, perhaps the new standard to which albums that divide the fans and the critics are set, was so polarizing upon its release it had more than one major music publication proudly hailing Coldplay as the next Radiohead. And while a rock album with touches of R&B might sound polarizing, I assure you that it is manufactured as one easy-to-swallow pill. The songs are arranged and sequenced perfectly, like jigsaws falling into place. The album is long enough to engage the audience, while short enough not to overstay its welcome. It is also highly addictive, and rewarding. My current favorite, "Reckoner," reveals its beauty more and more with each listen, more so than some of the album's immediately engaging songs ("Weird Fishes/Arpeggi", "All I Need").

As you can probably tell, I am in love with In Rainbows. I feel like a teenager all over again. Somewhere in a different space/time continuum, the younger SonicRyan who did his math homework to OK Computer is smiling. Already my $81 is well spent, and the arrival of my Discbox set is still two months off. I have been listening to this album on repeat since the download completed, following the rainbow. Already I have found several pots of gold, with no end in sight.


It is hard to put into words what constitutes an exceptional album – you just know. This one I knew it right away. It’s in the moments – the ones I’m still anticipating after having heard them a million times, the ones where there is burgeoning meaning behind the vocals, the ones that are comfortably familiar, and the ones I grow to love.

The moments. The entrance of a sleepy guitar on the backdrop of a synthetic beat. The pure Radiohead rock song where Thom really loses himself. “I’ve seen it coming/I’ve seen it coming.” The isolated falsetto in a song I fell in love with years ago. The wavy, creepy strings. The slow building of distant howls backed by a whirling guitar. The personal lyrics finally let out of the bottle since The Eraser. “I’m in the middle of your picture.” The catchy melodic upbeat acoustic heavily orchestrated number. The drums hiding in the off-beats. The parts that stick in my head and slip loose when no one is around. “Because we separate/it ripples in our reflection.” The expansive, smoldering melody that took awhile, but now cannot seem to get out of my head. The OK Computer droned voices. The organic looped toward its exacted purpose. It’s in the moments.


I was waiting for an old friend. It had been years since I’d seen her, left her blistered and angry, a little weathered. Before she’d worn dark half-moons under her eyes, carried self-loathing in frail bones. She never looked so beautiful. Now I wondered how time would mark its passage upon her in undetectable but certain ways, like the inching of the long arm on a clock. I knew nothing. I knew she would not disappoint.

For days I’ve breathed nothing but Radiohead. I’ve craved nothing else. I’ve prowled the Internet, scraped my knees on the album’s tiniest criticisms. I’ve championed “House of Cards” after seeing it spurned, like that summer a boyfriend said orange wasn’t my color and I vowed to prove otherwise. I’ve sung caricatures of “Reckoner” with friends. Doodled rainbows on faded receipts. I’ve stirred the coals of conversation with my squat grocery-checkout hermaphrodite, to whom I evinced that the new album was, for lack of a more concise companion to my linking verb, amazing.

Already I fear my friend’s absence. I fear the moment I’ve traversed every haunted inch, explored each crook of an elbow, sung her in the car, out screamed the rain, falling in love, falling from love, falling in.



panopticon said...

"squat grocery checkout hermaphrodite"

...where do you shop?!?!

Let me first say that I am not the Radiohead fan that any of you are. I enjoy their music and perhaps more their musical interpretation of the machine-driven alienation that creeps in all around. Music as it should be - both created for aural pleasure as well as societal commentary. I really got into Radiohead through The Bends (and awesome video for Fake Plastic Trees) then subsequently OK Computer (best and most relevant album of the 90s, IMO). I still have yet to give Amnesiac the time it deserves, nor have I taken the time to dive headlong into b-sides and rarities.

That said -

I am incredibly impressed by two things in this album:

1. It manages to sound distinctly Radiohead without sounding distinctly like any other Radiohead album. There are bits and pieces here and there, yet the album is a showcase of the variety of sound. It's very accessible (unlike Kid A, for example).

2. Much has been made of the release format, and I would like to applaud Radiohead for stretching the boundaries of common distribution. Smaller bands require the promotional blitz and push of a corrupt label in order to push copies and drive revenue, otherwise they get lost in a sea of soundalikes. Having both the scope and capacity to break free of any label to make the music you want to make - yet still managing to make something not only listenable, but enjoyable - requires a vast knowledge of sound, voice, and fan base. I would say that Radiohead as a collective have all three in supply.

A litmus test:

Imagine how weird/good/completely unlistenable some of the seminal albums of the last fifty years would be without the influence of the label or "creative control." Imagine how the White Album would have flown off the rails in a drug-fueled bender. Now take that lack of a "safety net," if you will, and apply to this album - this album could very well have been too weird/not enough guitars/too many guitars/too much like Kid A/any number of things.

But it's not.

This album is just right, if a little bit short. It's an appreciation of the full range of the Radiohead sound to this point.


3. "Videotape" is an ideal song for this rainy dreary gloomy day.

Femme Fatale said...


Crazy Radiohead fan or not, I think you've hit the nail on the head in terms of why this album is not only adored by old fans, but why I suspect it will also bring legions of new fans.

Your comments got me thinking, what is the deal with all of this backlash surrounding "Videotape"? Like you, I adore the song. It's been the first Radiohead song to grab me emotionally in a LONG TIME. I've listened to live versions of the song online, and though they've sounded pretty damn cool, I don't understand why everyone feels like the album version is so inferior. Is this just the case of "I heard this version first, so I like it better"? Why doesn't anyone just accept that the looped drum beats at the end (versus wailing guitars) was a STYLISTIC choice??

SonicRyan said...

I'm convinced that it is a case of "I heard this version first so I like it better." I've even read people complaining about "Reckoner", which apparently was quite rockin' the one and only time they played it live. It so happens that "Reckoner" is my personal favorite right now. But whatever, to each their own I suppose. Panopticon, thanks for the insightful comment. I hope you keep coming back.

Josh said...

I love the whole album, and I've been listening to all of the songs equally. I don't know if I can pick a favorite.

On Videotape... "Red Blue Gree... Red Blue Green..." gets me every time, for reasons I cannot describe. That said, I see where people are coming from with the drums at the end. The first time I heard them, they literally drove me nuts.

I'm more used to the drums now, but they're still disturbing. I don't know that it's a "bad" kind of disturbing, but I see how they could be offputting to someone who had gotten used to an earlier version of the song.

SonicRyan said...

To me it sounds like the end of the tape as it's winding off the spool...

panopticon said...

I should probably have mentioned that I'm Erik and I'm also a Foucault fan, huh? :)


It's disappointing that so many "fans" of Radiohead are being supercritical of this album because it's not exactly the perfect album THEY thought it would be.

To them I say: You are a critic, not a fan. Anything released into the public is bound to be disseminated and deconstructed to the most infinite degree, much like Fox News on any polarizing issue only with slightly more relevance.


We as fans do not write the songs, nor play them, only listen. Any art - music or otherwise - is meant to be a source of inspiration and personal reflection, not stripped down to its most bare elements searching for flaws.

Whatever choices Radiohead chose to make in this album/live show/whatever are their choices to make as artists and should be respected as such. People may dislike it, but there is a vast difference between "I don't like this" and the infuriating "I would have done this here."

If you would have done xxxx instead, why don't you write your own album?

(end artistic credibility tangent)