John Metzger's #1 album for 2008
House of Cards: Memorable Song #4 for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by John Metzger
Thu December 27, 2007, 08:45 AM CST
Itís safe to say that In Rainbows, Radioheadís seventh studio effort, did not have an easy birth. Over the course of the past four years, recording sessions were held and tour dates were arranged during which the band debuted several songs. Consequently, a new album repeatedly was rumored to be imminent. Yet, with the exception of an assortment of side projects and diversions ó including Thom Yorkeís solo outing The Eraser, material for movie soundtracks, and a compilation of forgotten reggae classics that was entitled Jonny Greenwood Is the Controller ó Radiohead remained unable to pull the trigger and deliver its long overdue product to market.
Considering that the group has been caught in a nearly constant state of metamorphosis since it released The Bends in 1995, it isnít surprising that Radiohead seemed to be unsure about what its next move ought to sound like. There were connections among its endeavors, of course, with threads of thought and melodic patterns that provided enough of a linkage to carry the bandís fans along on its exploratory excursion. At the same time, though, the sonic framework that the ensemble employed was altered dramatically from one effort to the next. Itís impossible to maintain such a rapid rate of growth for any length of time, and perhaps knowing this, Radiohead bought itself some room to maneuver by culling two albums ó Kid A and Amnesiac ó from the same slate of recording sessions.
Nevertheless, when it issued Hail to the Thief in 2003, the cracks in Radioheadís foundation had begun to show. When the group made the surprise announcement that it had chosen to make In Rainbows available for downloading at a customer-determined rate, rather than launch its new product via traditional distribution channels, the outfitís more skeptical fans began to wonder if perhaps this approach to marketing was designed specifically to mask the deficiencies in the album itself. In addition, the hype that surrounded the release of In Rainbows seemed to be devoted to how the band was wreaking havoc on the music industry rather than on the actual content of the endeavor, which leant further credence to this theory. The truth, however, may be that after all of the delays, Radiohead simply wanted to annoy the hell out of iTunes. (The ensemble has refused to allow the store to carry its music because it doesnít want its work to be dissected into individual tracks). Itís equally possible that the collective merely wanted to test the waters in order to determine the reaction that fans would have to the material it had created. Regardless, it need not have any fear; In Rainbows is positively brilliant.
Just as Wilco stopped pushing so hard to reinvent itself on Sky Blue Sky, Radioheadís In Rainbows is not a bold departure from what had come before it. Instead, it reshapes the terrain that the band previously had tread. Itís surprising, then, that In Rainbows is initially a difficult album to grasp, though this has less to do with the textures that Radiohead explores than it does with the way in which it has been recorded and mixed. It always has required considerable focus and attention in order to decipher the words that Thom Yorke is singing. On In Rainbows, particularly during its opening half, it becomes almost maddening to hear how his vocals are forced to compete with the surrounding music. Much like R.E.M.ís Murmur ó or Iron & Wineís The Shepherdís Dog, for that matter ó this conscious decision is what ultimately causes listeners to be drawn into the work. Once there, they are faced with material that is, at times, so strikingly lovely, that itís impossible to resist.
Considering that it is composed of songs that have been plucked from various stages of Radioheadís career, In Rainbows could have been a disjointed mess. Instead, the architectural juxtapositions are what cause the albumís heart to beat. All of Radioheadís usual touchstones are here, of course: The explosiveness of Nirvana and the grittiness of Sonic Youth filter through Bodysnatchers, while the rhythmic pulse that fuels Jigsaw Falling into Place undoubtedly draws from the Talking Heads, even if the final result sounds nothing like what one might expect from such a description. Elsewhere, there are subtle odes to Lee "Scratch" Perryís experimental dub grooves as well as overt references to The Beatles, U2, and Pink Floyd. Nevertheless, the way in which it all comes together initially feels like a disorienting blast of sonic colors and shadings. It is a prime example of Radiohead operating at the peak of its abilities with full confidence.
In crafting In Rainbows, Radiohead essentially perfected the manner in which it increasingly has placed the digital artificiality of drum loops and sonic effects at odds with the organic reality that is represented by the guitars and vocals. There are moments when Yorkeís voice disintegrates in the surrounding mayhem, leaving a trail of echoes in its wake, as well as those in which the rhythms skitter and clatter along as if composed from the static that lies at the fringes of a 21st Century, Truman Show existence. By contrast, thereís a warmth that blossoms from deep within the songs. Not only does it float upward from the thick, R&B-laden bass patterns, but it also drifts through the quaint McCartney-isms from which both Faust ARP and Videotape are drawn. Without question, this music was not made to be downloaded, nor was it designed to be played on an iPod. The arrangements are three-dimensional, yet it is only when they are heard through a hi-fi stereo system that they truly come to life.
Repeatedly, over the course of In Rainbows, sounds twist and twirl through the air, coalescing into something that is heady and surreal. In a sense, the atmospheres through which Radiohead wades conjure the tumultuous calm of a post-apocalyptic, heroin-induced fantasy world that is filled with horrific beauty. At first, Yorkeís voice struggles to escape from amidst the din of guitars, rhythms, strings, and anything else that Radiohead can find to toss into the maelstrom. As the set progresses, however, it becomes easier to comprehend what he is saying. This, too, is a deliberate move, and although repeated treks through the endeavor reveal more of the words that he delivers during the opening suite of songs, the clarity always improves as the collection tumbles toward its conclusion.
As has been the case with Radioheadís past efforts, In Rainbows is concerned with the feelings of alienation that go hand-in-hand with modern-day existence. Thereís no mistaking the desire for connection that lurks within each of the albumís 10 tracks, nor is it an accident that the set ends with Yorke standing before the gates of Heaven, remembering the things that meant most to him in his life. It is a song that is born of revelation and regret, and it puts all of the preceding material into perspective. In Rainbows is an album about love and the ways in which humans have a tendency either to misidentify it or to screw it up once they find the real thing. Its music is darkly seductive, yet the light of 10,000 suns radiates from its core. For all of the experimentation and weird surprises that Radiohead has unleashed in the past decade, it all appears to have been leading to this very moment. In Rainbows is more than just insanely good. Itís the bandís best album.
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Alternative Music Album
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package
Of Further Interest...
In Rainbows is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box