I’ve been a big fan of Radiohead since they were called “On A Friday”, when Thom Yorke was at Exeter University (in the same year and 1st Year Hall as me), and this is my ‘definitely-NOT-like-those-chapters-in-American-Psycho’ comment on (just about) my favourite album of all time: In Rainbows.
Radiohead have often commented about their difficulty with making albums. Kid A and Amnesiac took years to record and apparently nearly broke up the band. In Rainbows was self-released at the end of 2009, perhaps the first major internet release of an album by such a major group. Buyers were encouraged to pay what they wanted for the album. It was also released as a CD in various formats. I’m still clinging to the Old School, so I own a CD.
IMHO In Rainbows is the (natural?) culmination of all their previous albums: it’s ‘perfect Radiohead’. It’s still angry, it’s still sometimes bleak. But it’s got genuine love songs too. And this is all pretty much brought to life in the first four songs, perhaps the best opening to an album I can think of.
15 Steps builds on the types of rhythmic drum sequences from Kid A. The relentless 5/4 time signature and Phile Selway’s flawless, kinetic drumming is immediately arresting and almost hypnotic. Then the tone is changed by the lilting, almost gentle guitar chords, constantly shifting. The version of this song they performed at the 2009 Grammy Awards with the USC Marching Band is fantastic.
Bodysnatchers evokes some of the driving basslines and riffs from Hail to The Thief and tracks like The National Anthem from Kid A. It’s terrific rock music, and seemingly a million miles away from Radiohead’s more experimental and electronic songs. But on this album it feels like they discovered the balance between their extremes, of how to master guitar rock, electronic samples and dance rhythms. And all the time the lyrical content has undercurrents that can be downright angry and sinister: the song seems to be about being trapped within a body, unable to connect of communicate with the outside world, and ends with “I’m a lie”. Nice.
Nude is a huge change of pace and tone after the energy of the first two tracks. This is a Radiohead lullaby, featuring wonderful wordless falsetto lines and a softly pulsing bass. It reminds me of the terrific Exit Music from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet. In both songs, the lyrics are utterly at odds with the gentle beauty of the harmonies… “Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not gonna happen … You’ll go to Hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”.
The video for this track was directed by another of my broadcasting favourites, Adam Buxton, with Garth Jennings (director of the wonderful Son of Rambow).
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is another brilliant example of Phil Selway’s drumming, and Radiohead’s ability to build a song through layers in the arrangements. The constant guitar ‘arpeggi’ shift, modulate and grow from the first few seconds. Again the tone is gentle, almost soporific as the lyrics take us floating towards “the bottom of the sea”. And then the song changes, as “I hit the bottom and escape”. I don’t know what he’s on about, but it’s fantastic.
But that brilliance in the first few tracks shouldn’t diminish the achievement of the rest of the album.
All I Need is another haunting, sinister love song. “You’re all Ineed, I’m in the middle of your picture, lying in the reeds.” The music is gentle, coaxing us to relax, but it seems to be sung by the very creepy elder incarnation of the guy from 1992 who wailed “I’m a creep… I wish I was special, you’re so f***ing special”.
Faust Arp uses a beautiful, simple string arrangement. As my wife (never Radiohead’s greatest fan) exclaims, “this is really nice to listen to”. It is that, but no less complex or impressive.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place is another favourite, a properly upbeat song, dissecting a night out in Oxford (but it could be anywhere). Again the arrangements build and build through the track, and the lyrics are coated in darkness..
Just as you take my hand, just as you write my number down, just as the drinks arrive, just as they play your favourite song. As your bad day disappears, no longer wound up like a spring, before you’ve had too much, come back in focus again.
The walls are bending shape, you got a cheshire cat grin, all blurring into one, this place is on a mission. Before the night owl, before the animal noises, closed circuit cameras, before you’re comatose…”
This video was also directed by Adam Buxton and Garth Jennings. Excellent!
And in the final song, Videotape, Radiohead achieve as close to a positive sign-off as they have ever done. Another lullaby with slowly moving piano chords, it closes with “Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen”…
Are Radiohead mellowing into their middle age? I doubt it, but this is for me by far their most accomplished anc complete work. There are so many Youtube videos of their recording sessions and concerts, innovative remixes and indeed animated films created by fans that the three here barely scratch the surface. The recent track in memory of Harry Patch was a stunning and beautiful piece of work…
Too much, I’m gushing aren’t I? Well, I guess I feel good when I see and hear artists always trying something new, always pushing themselves, not pandering to the label or the studio, not fitting into genres, and also not seemingly more concerned about their image than their substance, their work, their ideas.