By Alan Baban & Clayton Purdom | 5 November 2007
Glow readers: pay no heed to Team Hate counterpointing down there. Or, do. It’s quite a review. But this is your Radiohead review. We are here to talk real with you. We are of the people—we love Radiohead, too. Just like you do. But first, some hardball.
Hail to the Thief (2004) kinda sucks. We didn’t think so at first either, and, yeah, screw us for saying so now. We still like “There There.” But, please: “Punch Up at a Wedding,” “The Gloaming,” “Go To Sleep”. Tell us you still like these songs. Tell us you still listen to them. And to the fanboy in the back still bobbing his head: stop. Radiohead recorded Thief in two weeks and it shows. The writing’s thin, the rhythm’s clunky and the funk is so faked it’s practically Britney at the VMAs. The Leak sounded better and, friends, that isn’t kosher; the record, in the broad sense, tanks, even when individually so much of it works. It is the sound of a band reaching for a masterpiece when they don’t have it in them to even try. And the point—the pellucid moment—when you stop pussying out of that assertion and realise that this band is fallible and these five guys are just a bunch of dudes—dudes with plectrums; dudes with sticks—is the point at which you can listen to In Rainbows, and enjoy it.
Because this, broadly speaking, is not a “Radiohead” record. That bar was set too high; this is why Thief (kinda) sucks. There’s only a short list of other artists who’ve had to carry the mantle that Radiohead has: the Biggest and Greatest band in the world, a behemoth of artistic and commercial heft. Imagine being so important. Only the Beatles did it without faltering. Let’s not talk about the Beatles. But, if we’re going to understand In Rainbows, let’s not talk about Radiohead either. At least, let’s not talk about that Radiohead, or those Radiohead records. Not specifically; we don’t have time, and Radiohead doesn’t wanna do it.
If we’re going to talk about anything, let’s talk about career arc, if “arc” can be used to describe the hyperconscious trouble minx that is this band’s muse. Let’s talk about a reversion away from earth-shaking experimentation—and let’s let alone the question of whether or not this band was truly innovating. Let’s just admit that their tremors shook the earth, right: and that they really truly couldn’t give a fuck about holding your hand. Let’s just accept that and move on. The career of Radiohead has, sure, always been about growth, about advancement. But, crucially at this point, it’s also always been about retreat. Because Radiohead may have been growing but—high-five to Mark Abraham—they were never going to grow into anything new: they were growing into Radiohead. They were growing into the space they left.
Listen to “Reckoner”; hear how ecstatic these tones are? There’s hardly a moment that isn’t delicate and/or precise; hardly a point, either—as one often, depressingly, felt with Thief_—where the band sounds _completely in control. Check the woozy off-chords, the tampered guitar fuzz, and the way they smudge in and out of Selway’s best motorik send-up: this isn’t the sound of people freaking out over “what to do next.” This is the sound, first and foremost, of friends having fun, of a band redefining its limits and realising its creativity and getting as close as it has ever gotten to just saying “Fuck it—let’s rock.” The growing pains are over. These dudes sound happy.
The official title of Biggest and Greatest Band on Earth has receded; no one has it now, and it’ll be awhile until some unlucky punks emerge to reclaim it. But the aura lingers on this band. The taint of Greatness may be residual at this point, a decade removed, but Bigness is still very real, and it’s in this realm that In Rainbows operates. It’s an outrageously entertaining and assured record for the Biggest band on the planet to release. When Coldplay or Kanye attempted such universality they ended up bloated and featureless; this is why Coldplay isn’t Radiohead and Kanye isn’t OutKast. So this is a pop record, but what’s surprising isn’t just that it’s not a concept record; what’s surprising is how deftly Radiohead understands 21st century pop music.
Who knew Phil Selway had “I’m A Slave 4 U” on his iPod? Or that “Nude” could ever sound so sexy? Drums dominate the mix, big brisk clipped crashes in the opening seconds, a slow-build percussive emphasis fleshing out what would’ve been a dirge on “Reckoner,” big acoustic guitar/live drum dynamism giving “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” its entire m.o. And yeah, the guitars sound like guitars, and there are riffs worth learning. And yeah, there’s reason for the fuss about Yorke’s performance, which is as nuanced and emotive as anything he’s committed to tape. But this is Selway’s show, or at least his coming out party. No silent partners or draughty lame hits here: the man births the backbeat only to let it crumple and distort into a series of considered and captivating beasts and supersonic remonstrances. His cymbals take the closing act of “All I Need” and turn it into a climax. He topples the “House of Cards”; he pencil-pushes “Reckoner” and makes it rock, sort of. The count-in on “Weird Fishes” is cute, but the game-changing off-beat that relays “Videotape” into its ghost image confirms it: In Rainbows is teasing, frisky even. It’s a record bent back and refracted by its own dynamic.
And that shit we said about “deft understanding of 21st century pop music”—here’s what we mean. We mean that like Murphy Lee before them Radiohead doesn’t need no hooks on this shit. Not conventional ones, at least—the hooks lie in wait within the bright tones of the instruments. This is good, and novel for a rock band of any stripe, but it’s the standing rule of the radio in this millennium. The Neptunes’ mansion of rock solid pop singles is built on drum tones; if a catchphrase emerges from the track, it’s most often because of the context, not the delivery. Or, which is more important, the chorus of “My Love” or the synth line? Or, why else would we listen to Kanye? In this respect In Rainbows is that most decent work of art possible, the application of knowledge earned from the fringes of music toward the most palatable whole possible. The experiments are over; here is pop. These sounds are carefully aligned, precision placed for maximum satisfaction. When Yorke belts the chorus to “Weird Fishes,” we may sing along, but the part we’re enjoying is the smooth switch toward a more sanguine bass tone. The lush sweltering swooned-out climax of “All I Need” would be nothing without the spry downtempo boom-bap of the song’s first three minutes.
Of course, you already know all of this. You’ve known this as long as we have, from the first time you heard this record when you downloaded it for whatever the hell you chose, and let’s not act like that’s not something revolutionary. The ultimate ramifications of this band’s distribution (anti)model are impossible to calculate, so we’re not going to really attempt to. In all the best ways and to all the correct people, it’s a giant middle finger that reads just as clearly as the middle finger sent up by the 2000-2001 “omg no guitar solos” records. The band still gets off on a good fuck-you, and giving this record away is a pretty good fuck-you that probably still netted them a load of gold-plated shit.
The point, though, is that this is the best possible record with which to flip that fuck-you, because as the band’s great pop antistatement it also throws a familial arm around the inexplicably legion group of fans this band has garnered through the years. Much has been made of Thom Yorke singing about fucking, and it’s great that it’s a) not weird and b) something he feels totally comfortable to do, but what’s best is that the band and Yorke seem okay with these songs being about other people fucking, too. The Glow gets a lot of beef for taking its sweet time on things, but if any record merited taking a normal amount of time to digest—and a few weeks is a normal and correct amount of time, Metacritic boarders—it’s In Rainbows. We were, in other words, too busy fucking to review this record. No apologies forthcoming.
And we’re not going to talk about the Beatles. We’re really not. But even if In Rainbows isn’t some doubled-up play on the White Album—and we’re not saying it is!—the two are kindred in spirit: the band takes this material and plays it unambiguously. And, yeah, there’s something playful about hearing this band so straight-laced, an impish mischief in these ten deconceptualised performances. In Rainbows indeed: refracted through the prism of pure pop songcraft, Radiohead sound as ephemeral and variegated as ever, flowering and streaming and as big as the light our eyes can catch. It’s a ridiculous album title, but it’s a ridiculous album, brashly about the good things, coming like a ten-stripe rainbow about your favorite band and love and great drums and fucking and sweetness. As a pop album from any other band, it’d be winsome and coy; as the new Radiohead record, it’s nothing short of fucking scandalous.