Saturday, April 18, 2009

In Rainbows

I often mention music that I'm listening to when posting on here, and it is usually first thoughts on some release or another. I have never come back to anything once I've had a chance to mull over it. Well today I was listening to In Rainbows by Radiohead, and decided to break the habit.

I have made no secret of the fact that I think Radiohead are the greatest currently recording band in the world. Almost 15 years ago (!) I was pulled in by The Bends and from then on it was a joy to follow the path of progression laid out by OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac. I loved them for the constantly evolving sound, the integration of new directions, and most importantly the world-class songwriting. Hail To The Thief was the first miss-step, in my mind, as it felt like they were almost treading water for the first time. That's not to say that there weren't a few class moments: come on, it's a Radiohead Album...

After a 4-year break came In Rainbows. Yes, it's the one that you could download from their website and pay whatever you wanted, including nothing. At the time it gathered a tremendous amount of coverage and generated serious debate on the future of the music industry, all of which threatened to overshadow the fact that there was actually an album being released. Looking back through the retrospectoscope, it was in fact a genius piece of marketing that gave them a load of money from downloads, thwarted the torrents, and priceless free advertising for the physical release. Which promptly went to number one in the UK and the US, selling a load of copies. Hooray! The industry is not dead!

Was it worth the wait and hype? Short answer: oh yes. Longer answer: ohhhhhhhh yes. This has become my favourite Radiohead album. Previously I had loved both OK Computer and Kid A, the former for any number of reasons which anyone who has heard it will know, and the latter for its almost shocking integration of "modern" music. In Rainbows eclipses both by taking the mood, aesthetic, feel, and attitude of OK Computer whilst retaining some of the innovations of Kid A and Amnesiac. Thom Yorke's Eraser album mitigated the need for too much of the down-tempo electronic songs; this is a rock band rocking. This is Radiohead, not Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, and a laptop. I love this album, and it has become indispensable, slotting into my group of "best albums ever". If I could only take a handful of albums with me to a desert island, this would be one of the first on the list.

I'm not going to do a track-by-track review, but I will highlight a breathtaking sequence of 4 songs in the middle of the album: Nude, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, All I Need, and Faust Arp. This is a run of songs at least equal to the current champion of Sloop John B, God Only Knows, and I Know There's An Answer (from Pet Sounds). Nude kicks it off: this is Radiohead at their best, a haunting and beautiful song about extramarital affairs, wailed out by Thom Yorke over a penetrating bass-line. That song would be the highlight of the album, were it not followed by Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. I'll be honest here: I wasn't sure about this one on the first few listens, and didn't get why Niall was saying that this was the heart of the album. Boy, was I wrong, and I have no idea why it took a few listens to click. I have come to the conclusion that this is Radiohead's best song, and therefore by definition one of the greatest songs ever. It's difficult to do it justice by description: dueling guitars, angsty lyrics, amazing percussion and a shift of tone at the end. The build towards the middle of the song is exhilarating, the song is amazing. Just listen:

I know, Radiohead are marmite (like Bjork) but bands such as Coldplay, Keane, Athlete and the like must feel foolish when they hear music as good as that. How can you follow it up on an album? By a complete change of style, to All I Need. Both cold and heartfelt, this sounds like it could have been produced by Boards Of Canada, has arrestingly direct lyrics, and builds to a stunning and chaotic conclusion. Finishing off the quartet of songs is Faust Arp, a lovely 2-minute ballad that they would simply not have put on previous albums. Wonderful stuff.

So, In Rainbows: I like it. A lot. A quick scan of the internet seems to show that most other people did as well. This should be in your music collection.


Blogger Jenny said...

But pretty much I only like Radiohead's The Bends. Is it still for me?

12:36 am  
Blogger swishfish said...

Interesting question. It's certainly closer to The Bends than other Radiohead albums in terms of "direct" rock songs, but it does retain the "arty" edge of later albums. Did you play the YouTube videos in the post? Those, along with this one:

Those should give you a good flavour of the album.

Out of interest, why only The Bends? I can fully understand that many Radiohead fans would not appreciate the direction of Kid A/Amnesiac, but what didn't you like about OK Computer? Too downbeat or introspective?

12:06 pm  

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