By Chet Betz & Joel Elliott | 5 November 2007
All bets here are as hedged as they are final.
But it must be good to be Radiohead, right? A band born to be independent, a band that for years has successfully skirted the boundaries of populism to make strangely populist music that grazes off the many spheres of influence they wander ably between, all the while gaining millions of fans in their wake. This renown, in turn, allows them to pull the kind of impressive-yet-overly-lauded stunt that is their In Rainbows release stratagem. And thousands of like-minded bands can only look up at their gods in envy, knowing full well that if they did the same no one would buy their pricy vinyl packages, and that the majority of their fans would leave a big fat zero in the digital coffer. Radiohead have it so good they know they’re risking nothing. The instant they announced Operation Rainbows the war was over. Droves of heads conscripted; record labels cursed; Radiohead enjoyed tea and a good laugh, doing it all like it was possible with the lazy push of a button. And best of all, for them? “Important” or not, the album Radiohead made behind their self-drawn curtain and before all this air raid siren-esque industry/indie kafuffle was a classic even before it digitally popped like a cork gun with a flag that might as well have read: “This is our new album; it sounds like our other albums. All of them, all at once, boiled down into something comfortable. Enjoy. By the way, pay whatever you want! Love, Us.”
In Rainbows is a record of negation. Edges get rounded off, styles collated and reduced, embellishments de-integrated into clutter and creeping around in the back of the mix waiting for their ephemeral chances to swell just as the tracks peak or hit some minor chord change. The songs are structured like post-rock, but post-rock where everything’s abridged into pop song formats of four minutes on average, their progression diffused by developing the songs laterally (through the production) rather than linearly (through the songwriting). Within the record’s self-imposed digestibility Radiohead make room by starting songs out with those one or two core elements onto which all the other Lego blocks are added: for the lurcher that is “15 Step” it’s the drum programming, on “Bodysnatchers” it’s the gutter riff, with “Videotape” it’s that serious-as-death piano (heya, “Pyramid Song”). In Rainbows is a record of singular ideas, riffs, or effects that every fan can latch onto as instant examples of the band’s brilliance. And some of these ideas are brilliant, but when “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Reckoner” use almost the same fluid guitar picking—only two songs removed from one another, mind—the band seems to be repeating itself. For all the insularity of OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000)—which, if critics and fans are to be believed, contain tracks that work because of the specific contexts—none of the songs on either album sounded remotely the same. In Rainbows follows Kid A’s approach without Kid A’s experimenting, or, less charitably, Kid A’s approach with some random experimenting that happened off in another room that somebody liked, saved, and much later really thought should lightly be panned left at 25 on MIDI track 14 just because. To add color, as the cheery album title might suggest.
Where it works it treads water. “Nude” and “All I Need” successfully borrow the bowed guitar so central to Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely”; still, they might compose the best quarter of In Rainbows simply because they manage to avoid the predictable arc that plagues most of its other songs. For its first three minutes “All I Need” doesn’t noodle too far from its downbeat plumbed with heavy synth bass (see also Boards of Canada’s “Roygbiv”); then, suddenly, it delivers the record’s biggest gut-check with a spiral flight coda that plays out on an entirely different plateau than the circular laps that vaguely anchored the song before this rupture. More restrained in effect, “Nude” begins with a backwards cascade of its signature melodies and then lets those ebb off and away from the beautifully understated groove below. Yorke slowly articulates his final judgment, “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking,” the instruments dropping out and leaving his voice naked. The orchestral flourishes that finish both tracks are probably unnecessary, but then again (apart from maybe that wicked syncopated bass on “All I Need”), these tracks succeed on the basis of the songs themselves rather than the arrangements.
Elsewhere, the reverse is true: “15 Step” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” are bodies of vast ambience and rich production, sure, but the actual “songs” tend to get in the way. The former is Greenwood’s finest moment on the record, his clean and effortless guitar sliding around the bass line and showing how Radiohead can subvert virtuosity: the instrumentation isn’t complicated but its precision is remarkable. Yet this attempt at blasting out the hulk of complex arrangements and then crunching the debris into pop formulas is part of the fundamental problem with In Rainbows: the clamoring drum machines on “15 Step” and the song’s verse-chorus-verse structure almost hide the track’s deftest touches, like when the inarticulate shouts of children are slipped subtly into the mix. Compared with the way laptop artist Mark Templeton employed the same trick earlier this year on “Admidst Things Uncontrolled,” the band just seems sloppy.
This is a problem that gets further compounded every unsettling time the fascinating/frustrating production becomes superfluous, now that In Rainbows’ newly revised edition of the Radiohead Guide to the Lineage of Modern Rock places U2 somewhere near the apex of a hierarchy that never used to seem so obvious. Radiohead have lost what they used to share with the left-field musicians they once consumed and redistributed with seeming ease: an aesthetic approach that understands how context complements sound instead of disguising it. In fact, disguising what’s been lost seems In Rainbows prerogative number one, even on the best songs. Yorke’s lyrics are nigh destitute; his words project what they want to be on “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” where his excellent vocal performance almost makes one forgive him for pretending to be evocative by calling fishes “weird” over and over. Tellingly, it’s his wordless background vocals that kick in around the halfway mark and his cooing over the song’s coda that really carry the emotional weight of the track. Ridiculous statements cancel each other out all over the record—“All I Need” is just a series of those—and when it’s not posturing or babbling In Rainbows deals in cheap vacuities, the cumulative effect equaling oblique Coldplay. The lines of “Nude” dab white on a white canvas, forsaking the one crucial concrete from previous incarnations: “She stands stark naked and she beckons you to bed / Don’t go, you’ll only want to come back again.”
Some have asserted that this is Radiohead’s “love” record. It’s easy to see how a lot of these songs might be about fucking, but if this is music about love, then it sounds like a love lacking for much real passion or joy. The thrust of “15 Step” is mechanical, the serenade of “All I Need” rendered ineffectual by bad metaphors, the insecurity of “House of Cards” is as bored and boring a type of insecurity as the titular image implies (to say nothing of the Claptonesque guitar). A few others have gone as far as to compare this to soul music, but that’s wrong to expect; Radiohead’s grit is digitally processed, they have to meet the idea of “warmth” halfway, they’re not a band that’s especially good at swinging with abandon in the context of common rhythms. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more interesting for the band to do to the love song what In Rainbows emphatically does not: bring love songs under the full duress of Radiohead hallmarks like paranoia, self-loathing, and crippling doubt? When the band embraces these haunts, rather than glossing them over in vagueness or a more pop veneer, the music creates “warmth” through empathy; for all its dystopian associations OK Computer is far more humanistic and outward-looking than anything they’ve done since while a lyric as inane as “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” delivered palpable dread and schizophrenia because of how the band treated it. _Figure 8_-ish “Faust Arp” only succeeds too well in making Thom’s blather innocuous.
Radiohead’s at ease now. They’ve even found a way to quell the fear of technology that fueled the primary textual-to-aesthetic contradiction (as a band that allows technology to carbonize their music) that helped make them interesting in the first place. And so we have “Videotape,” as resigned a closer as imaginable, where Radiohead really sounds like they believe—if nothing else—in their existence as a band documented by tape. Because after “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” it’s hard to be convinced that Radiohead’s just stripping bare on “Videotape,” especially since many of these songs have been around a long time, fading all the while. Now that they’ve been set, it feels like vital parts are gone, missed somewhere in Radiohead’s search through their own oeuvre for something more and more facilely universal, something that draws lines within lines of song types and not the larger methodology, something that can be “important” without being challenging. So a song like “Videotape” is stunted, slight in content with a shine of thin polish, 100% gravitas that’s still an easy pill to swallow. While In Rainbows is Radiohead’s most cohesive record since Kid A and ranks as one of their most listenable, its deeper rewards drift in a limbo somewhere between Radiohead the band—that toured with these songs for years, sweated their souls dry over every detail, tried to meet astronomical expectations—and Radiohead the entrepreneurs, who realized that life is good, love is nice, and people gonna cop that shit no matter what.