Review: Radiohead's In Rainbows

 

When In Rainbows entered into this world officially in 2007 (and who can forget their voluntary donation experiment?), I and I'm sure some others with me, were about as lost in musical direction as any young sheep in an endless herd. But the dawn of this work was both for its time and within Radiohead’s repertoire unique and inspirational for us, because it did its best to synthesize everything they did up to that point with the general musical attitude and philosophy surrounding them. The result was simply a masterpiece, and I can think of just a few experiences more exciting than actually living through the production of a brand new album and discovering that it’s just as compelling as any favorite from the past. Somehow it makes a difference, and what difference it makes will now be redeemed as if it was a ransom from years of memory.

Opening with 15 Step, In Rainbows casts a pleasant echo of mood from the OK Computer era, and the guitar work is in itself simply unforgettable. It is one of the more eclectic from the album, I think it’s possible to argue, and Thom Yorke's trademark vocals don’t do much in the way of taking from it, while they do a lot in the realm of giving to it. The bass just a little more than a minute away from its end is also worthy of emphasis, as it accents itself powerfully and provides perfect support for the brief vocals which follow before 15 Step’s slightly haunting but hopeful end. And then with Bodysnatchers, Radiohead pays a very subtle tribute to material recognizable from early expressions of desperate angst like we see in The Bends, but how they transition from 15 Step to it I think is the highlight of its genius. By this point it becomes clear that this album is hell bent on expressing a seamless garment of profound expression and repeated attempts toward tension resolution.

At least this seems to be the case until Nude appears on the scene, directly after Bodysnatchers, and with a vengeance of tragic expression. This is the first of In Rainbows’ tracks which seems difficult to listen to without remembering the glory of Kid A, just seven years prior. All that aside, it is a moving and emotional piece which ends again with Yorke’s drawn out and desperate, passionate vocal performance, backed by sensitive and arguably terrifying instrumental work. This leads finally into what I argue is the album’s prime example of genius: Weird Fishes / Arpeggi, and what an arpeggio it is! Just like between 15 Step and Bodysnatchers, the transition between Nude and Weird Fishes is more than fitting. But in this case it’s mystical, not merely seamless and well placed. The arpeggio theme they carry until the song’s end leaves an impression of unresolved sorrow by the time it finishes, and this sorrow remains yet even more unresolved as All I Need appears quickly in its wake.

All I Need is admittedly my personal favorite from this album, because it resolves by its surprising end a theme I argue is present from thebeginning: being lost between the impulses of flowing positive emotion and the darkness of inner reflection and deep tragedy. Nothing resolves this theme more powerfully than the intense and piercing piano and instrumentation which dominates the end of it. Mentioning Yorke’s finishing vocals again is simply unnecessary, not because it’s commonplace, but because its critical and defining role is at this point
simply taken for granted.

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Faust Arp is another guitar centerpiece of the album, boasting some of its finest composition, and it carries over the desperation from All I Need very well into Reckoner. And Reckoner functions, like 15 Step, as an awakening from slumber into the business of one’s own tormented mind and activity in daily life. Yet it differs from 15 Step in that it revisits the torment in a way reminiscent of Paranoid Android, where a suddenly dramatic and slow emotional theme eclipses the main theme.

House of Cards carries over small details of a similar tragic theme in its background, but maintains an ominously cheerful guitar and drum work over it. Lyrically, I argue it is the weak point of the album, as its lyrics seem difficult to identify with and recommend as an example of Radiohead’s goods. That aside, it’s another instrumental joy.

Finally, Jigsaw Falling into Place and Videotape end this album by summarizing its general atmosphere. Jigsaw opens, like Faust Arp and 15 Step, like a fervent claim waiting to be laid upon the next unsuspecting bystander. Except it flirts with the blues for a few seconds before returning to its main theme, which if listened to closely might almost resemble a cynical joke to close the more positive assertions throughout the course of this turbulent but great album. Videotape makes sure the listener ends the album on a similar tragic note as is found in All I Need and the other slower tracks, and it ends by a chord fading into obscurity. In summation, In Rainbows may be  ultimately a far more
influential album than it may be credited for, and if there is one fair statement which can be said about it, it is that it is a concise and well executed summary of everything good Radiohead had accomplished from its inception until the day that album was released.

Album Review by Ryan Smith

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