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Sunday, December 21, 2008


Radiohead. I’m tempted to put an end to this already. It’s the natural counter-reaction to so much static and reverb over the past few weeks—flatulent talk of how the band’s decision to self-release In Rainbows via MP3, at least initially, would affect the sagging record industry. What other band would stir reviews so focused on the evolution of songs via several years of shows and soundboard-quality MP3s; whether they were better off with that last rhythmic burst or left in downy reverb; whether acoustic or full-band would best address the audience’s needs for newstuff; or on the super-realism of its chosen format of release? Sure, much of this is easily blamed on the immediacy of the blog and ‘zine medium, and how much that very culture comes to boil around anything RADIOHEAD. No matter what you blame though, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed before the band even sent its first download e-mails out.

Fortunately, there was a reason behind the furor. An album, and a pretty good one that bears some discussion. (Yes, still.) In Rainbows is arguably Radiohead’s most direct and restrained album to date musically. Hail To The Thief, as trenchant and self-consumed as it was, has the sense—looking back, of course—as a final exhibition of excess. Not only in the album’s length, but in its rabid mechanical pitch and the steady, acrid vibrations of its music. You sense now that they were giving up every last bit of the sometimes overwrought sound-designing left of their post-Kid A years so that they could free themselves of the bonds of their own largesse. Kid A was, after all, an album with more after-shock than original tremor; it seemed an albatross, even more than the epic that preceded it, that the band couldn’t shed.

In Rainbows, then, is Radiohead as straight and lean as they’ve ever sounded. There’s a tendency given their collective ages—all besides drummer Phil Selway, who’s forty, are in their late-thirties—to consider this album necessarily one of ‘maturity.” Though it’s a bald cliché, the label fits, if not in the pejorative sense the word brings to mind in a business so concerned with the trends and habits of youth. In Rainbows merits the tag in that it’s the work of a band at ease with their own past and no longer willing to force things quite so hard. Given the record’s four-plus years in gestation and just how many people were watching and listening, it’s interesting to hear them overcome a presumed tendency to overthink their own arrangements. Most of the songs here actually sound almost as naked and pencil-sketched in places as the day they were created.

Certainly, there are moments when the more experimental touchstones of their past appear—the slinky drum patterns of “15 Step” or the bumbling wooden-block bursts in “Videotape”’s coda—but In Rainbows is at its best in the stretches when it places clarity above all its other virtues (“Bodysnatchers” perhaps excluded, and importantly, it’s the album’s most dated and inessential song). For one thing, they appear, for the first time in years, truly exposed. Not naked in a cell, security-control lineup kind of exposed, but open-eyed, honest, and waiting for a word of answer. These are songs clearly written by human hands, designed for consumption by friends, not revolutionaries or amateur philosophes. Yorke himself clearly values expression over impression on In Rainbows more than on any album since OK Computer. He’s no longer simply surrounded by screeches, scratchings, and mumblings against a chained door. On “Nude,” with its lumbering bass, strings, and dim guitars, he’s dropped the cover of without. His warning remains, but he makes it known more quietly, sang froid, small-table forum style.

Likewise, on “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” another of In Rainbows’s most unambiguous tracks, he covers these feelings of foreboding in dream-time tones. Beneath guitars that flash like light shimmering through aquarium waterglass (a nice trick by the band), he’s once again direct and plain-spoken. His metaphors are less terrorized by the ‘machine,’ more natural: “I get eaten by the worms / And weird fishes.” “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” feels predestined in its progress, riding a propulsive bass-and-drum part as brisk and muscled as “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” With the rhythm offset by multi-tracked moanings, Yorke sings again not of a monolith to beat your head against but of someone you might actually meet: “Just as you take my hand / Just as you write my number down / Just as the drinks arrive / Just as they play your favorite song. . .” The narrative is just as determined as the beat, a fight or dance you can have out with someone who might actually hear you shouting.

Though these changes in lyrical tone and address might seem subtle, the band’s shift in direction musically seems incredibly economic. I’m not sure Radiohead would ever have recorded songs as pop-tight and severe as “All I Need” or “Track Six” five years ago. The former, in particular, is bound to appeal to people who’d long given up Radiohead as too vampiric or self-obsessed. With a trip-hoppy beat and a warbling vibe that some have, rightfully, pointed out resembles the very beginning of Boards of Canada’s “Roygbiv,” “All I Need” is radio-friendly blunt. It’s not only one of their surest but one of their best creations, Yorke still and quiet over its batter-acid tones: “I’m just an insect / Trying to get out of the night.” “Faust Arp” is a bare ballad of strings and acoustic guitar, recalling the Beatles’ “Julia” not only in its intro, but in the warmth of its nostalgia. At just over two-minutes, the song serves as In Rainbows’ moment of supreme artistic confidence and determination—no extended coda, no mounting pressure in its motion, no hatcheted-drum parts.

Of course, sometimes this moderation leads to In Rainbows feeling, if not embryonic, at least early-birthed. “Reckoner,” in particular, seems centerless, too skeletal and short of purpose with its tinny rhythms—one of the album’s few consistent shortcomings—and Yorke’s most indecipherable moaning on the album. It drifts inertly, never forging into newly dynamic passages or ideas. “House of Cards” is similarly unfocused. There’s the soft, anthemic girth of “All I Need” in there somewhere, but given the malnourished instrumentation of this version, the song distracts from the compact final trio. For an album so dependent on cohesion and centrality, both songs are tethered a little too loose for comfort, and wind up undermining some of its kinetic pull.

Ultimately though, given their size, Radiohead is always too open to microscopic fault-findings, and these quibbles may feel too academic for an album of such concise emotional appeal. Closer Videotape is an inversion of sorts of Lou Reed’s classic “Perfect Day.” Yorke and company take Reed’s heroin-cold tale and spool it onto a machine. It turns the album’s own principles—its directness in address and arrangement—on their head: “This is my way of saying goodbye / Cause I can’t do it face to face.” The rapping, knocking drums recreate the sound of a videoreel when it first catches—what a perfect day it’s been but this is the end and this pulsing, blue-for-white cassette will vouch for me in hiding. It’s a familiarly alien means of approach for the band, but you can feel Yorke’s guilt for its use. But, foremost, this simple, trembling finish serves to remind us of Radiohead’s firm command of their own designs here.

In Rainbows is not their best album, and by this point, there was little hope it could be. But it may just age better than anything in their catalogue not Kid A or OK Computer. More importantly, it’s their first record since The Bends that may allow those so long turned off by the band’s experimentalism and pale fright to come back to something as comfortably uneasy with its surroundings as the rest of us.