So it’s finally arrived, ready to download at the price of your choosing, and I’ve left the ‘publication’ of my views on the new Radiohead album a bit later than most bloggers (and indeed, newspapers). You might see this as an accidental act of defiance against The Daily Telegraph’s seemingly anonymous writer, who, as a self-proclaimed champion of paid reviewers for paper publications (shame he blogs too; quite the moral conundrum), states that: ‘One advantage of being paid for your opinion is that you can take some time to work out what it is.’
I wouldn’t say that was necessarily the case, however, as a glance at The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis’s review of the album, a mere two days after its release (bearing in mind no promo editions of the album were mailed out to music journos), reveals. ‘A five star review’, asserts the headline, followed by Petridis stating that the album ‘may represent the strongest collection of songs Radiohead have assembled for a decade’, in just the sort of absurd soundbyte that will no doubt appear on the cover of the CD version.
Why absurd? Because even if Petridis isn’t including the band’s seminal 1997 release, OK Computer, within his stated decade, he’s still suggesting that In Rainbows is a more accomplished and impressive album than both Kid A (2000) and Hail to the Thief (2003) respectively. Which, despite his attempts to defend such a statement, just isn’t true. Kid A, for all of its initial press as the Marmite album that divided fans, is now recognised by and large as a huge and, for the most part, successful experimental leap; Radiohead chucking in the guitars in favour of weird electronics and synthesised sounds. And Hail to the Thief was a masterful attempt to blend the experiments of Kid A and Amnesiac with the raw energy and heavy, distorted riffage of The Bends and OK Computer; an admirable project that produced some wonderful moments (take ‘Go to Sleep’ or eerie album opener ‘2 + 2 = 5’ for example). ‘In Rainbows’, on the other hand, is nothing as experimental, nor indeed, thrilling.
What In Rainbows is, however, is Radiohead. The album still sounds like no other band on earth, and despite lacking the impressive, layered complexity and musical diversity of almost every earlier release, In Rainbows possesses a subtle power and melodic beauty which unfolds listen after listen. Opener ’15 Steps’ doesn’t much embody this, scuttling along with a haphazard beat and the rolling, half-chanted lyrics of Yorke, reminiscent of Hail to the Thief’s surprise highlight, ‘Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag doll)’. Neither does ‘Bodysnatchers’, a song that will please fans who miss Johnny Greenwood’s wild, screaming, strings-pushed-to-breaking-point guitars (which so defined 1995’s The Bends and much of OK Computer), but does little else. Where In Rainbows realises itself, then, is from here on in: third track ‘Nude’ balances the eerily chilling with more relaxed vibes to impressive effect, while ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’ is lush and, for once in the typical rather than odd or disturbing sense, genuinely beautiful. ‘Faust Arp’ is Radiohead at the peak of their gentle powers, too: the meandering folk undertones of a song that, like the stronger elements of Radiohead’s back catalogue, develops with rewarding repeated listens.
But then the album wouldn’t be complete without some sense of impending doom, social alienation or destruction, despite the minimalist calmness of the album overall and the (whisper it) love song that ‘House of Cards’ mysteriously and elegantly unfolds into. What Radiohead have done, however, is to package said staple content in such a way that it doesn’t hit you with the imploding guitars or layered explosiveness of earlier material. In Rainbows, for the most part, works a delicate magic instead, delivering fans what they’ve come to expect, and crucially, enjoyed in the past, but showing the band to be in possession of more unassuming and inconspicuous powers. Penultimate track and album highlight ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ showcases this perfectly: gentle drums leading into Yorke’s fast-paced lyrics as the song builds into a sinister tale of sudden realisation, while closing number ‘Videotape’ features unobtrusive piano that lends the lyrics added resonance and depth, culminating in a quivering and wonderfully unsettling drumbeat.
While In Rainbows doesn’t feature anything comparable to the intergalactic, mind-blowing crescendo of ‘Paranoid Android’ or the pulsating, danceable club beats of ‘Idioteque’, then, it is an album which not only shows Radiohead to have resolved their problems with melody post-OK Computer, but to have conquered subject matters and sounds that, to a considerable extent, go beyond previous efforts (namely, songs that feature a sense of hope, and indeed, happiness). What’s more, and against all the odds, Radiohead have done that which comes (in the minds of other bands) so frustratingly naturally to them: produced an album that delivers something new whilst remaining reassuringly familiar. While it won’t change the musical landscape in the way that The Bends, OK Computer or, to some extent, Kid A did, then, In Rainbows is nonetheless a worthy enough addition to Radiohead’s oeuvre.