Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the seventh full length Radiohead studio album, In Rainbows, available for download for a pittance on their website.
Let me say a few things first: I love Radiohead. Love them unconditionally. I think The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A are three of the most perfect albums of the past twenty years, although none of them really sound alike when you get right down to it. I wore out my tape of OK Computer in three months because I listened to it so damn much. I always forget how fucking awesome The Bends is until I listen to it again. Every time I listen to Kid A, I love it more and more. With all that said, I didn't spend very much time with Amnesiac and I've only listened to Hail to the Thief a few times. I believe that their most beautiful song is True Love Waits, which they only play live. I blame them for the demise in the quality of popular music in the past ten years. My reasoning is thus: once OK Computer came out, everyone looked around and said "shit. We can't compete with this. Now what?" and reverted back to bubblegum pop and cheap rehashes of 80s punk and 90s alterna-rock with predictably depressing results.
With all that said, let's get down to brass tacks here. In Rainbows, lovingly crafted by Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, Johnny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, and Phil Selway.
Last year I had heard rumors that the new Radiohead album would be their most rock-oriented since The Bends. As much as I was hoping for another stunning display of Brit Rock that would finally shut U2 up once and for all, it appears this is not to be. The album contains significantly more guitar than its predecessors, but very little straightforward song structures. The verse-chorus-verse model appears to once again be MIA and the various studio effects and electronic mayhem are still out in force. Not that this is a bad thing. A few tasteful vocal overdubs here, a string section there, a slight drum loop and some keyboards - the album doesn't sound as lush as their previous work. The sound is still full, but the arrangements sound sparser and more restrained. It appears that Mr. Yorke decided to push the majority of his drum and bass impulses onto his solo record from last year, The Eraser. I hear the influence of The Eraser all over In Rainbows, particularly in the overall sound of the album. The Eraser spent much more time in the major key than any of Radiohead's previous albums, creating a much more upbeat feel. I hear this all over In Rainbows, making for a happier sounding album than anything since Pablo Honey.
To be perfectly honest, I have always had trouble discerning Thom Yorke's voice. It is partially his fault, as his singing style is so subdued and his enunciation often questionable at best, combined with the abstract nature of many of his identifiable lyrics. It is also due to the fact that he uses his voice like an instrument in an ensemble, using it to create a mood with the rest of the band. With that said, each band member is given time to shine, especially the criminally underrated and overlooked Phil Selway on drums. He is given more time to shine on this album, as the band eschews many of the drum loops and machines employed on their last three albums. Johnny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien are also given more to work with. Radiohead has always been a guitar band at heart, I believe, but they choose to use their guitars in a more subdued manner than many other bands. There are no wailing solos and anthemic riffs are often non-existent, but guitars remain as indispensable to their sound as Yorke's vocals. Neither is a showy player but their chops are evident, especially on 'Bodysnatchers' and 'Jigsaw Falling Into Place', the latter featuring an almost Stones-like acoustic guitar accompaniment. That song sounds almost more like Wilco than Wilco, if you catch my drift. Slow it down a little bit and Jeff Tweedy will probably be kicking himself for not writing it.
The interesting thing about the album to me is how often I found myself thinking of their previous work while listening to it. '15 Step' would have fit into The Eraser, 'Jigsaw Falling Into Place' sounds like an inversion of 'Street Spirit', 'House of Cards' sounds like a sped-up 'Treefingers', 'All I Need' channels 'Lucky', etc. This is not a bad thing - it sounds more like the band revisiting and reexamining their history and reflecting upon their career. It's almost like the approach Trent Reznor took to With Teeth, only the exact opposite. Instead of resting on their laurels and making an album that is merely a regurgitation of what got them here in the first place, Radiohead chooses to build on their body of work. Through all this, the only thing I could find myself thinking was what their NEXT album will sound like. Very few bands or acts have been able to reinvent themselves so fully and convincingly with each release - Beck and the Roots come to mind, but that's about it - and still find success.
No one in a million years would have predicted back in 1993 that the band that made 'Creep' would have put out anything like The Bends, let alone OK Computer and everything that has come since. With the exception of Kid A and Amnesiac (which were recorded at the same time), no two Radiohead albums have sounded the same. And even then, Kid A and Amnesiac don't really sound the same, either. To be sure, there have been similarities between albums, and the leap from Amnesiac to Hail to the Thief wasn't as great as that from OK Computer to Kid A, but we can't penalize them for that. After 15 years, Radiohead remains at the forefront of modern rock music, having successfully ushered in the 21st century and daring other acts to follow. Their legacy, both critically and commercially, has been secure for almost a decade, but that hasn't stopped them from moving forward and re-imagining themselves. As much as I hate to say it, they might just be this generation's answer to the Beatles, in terms of their level of success and their level of audacity.
In Rainbows may not quite stand as tall as The Bends, OK Computer, or Kid A. It isn't groundbreaking, but it is beautiful. It presents the world with a band that still appears to be figuring itself out, honing its strengths, and still searching for its ceiling. The race for Album of the Year has officially been handicapped (sorry, LCD Soundsystem, Brother Ali, and Wilco, but this if fucking RADIOHEAD we're talking about). Will I grow tired of praising and extolling the virtues of Radiohead? Not bloody likely. As far as I'm concerned, they'll be turning water into wine in three years' time, or however long it will take them to put out another album. In the meantime, the world will have to make do with In Rainbows. Would that I could always make do with something so satisfying.