Most albums get worse with age. The passage of time ultimately erodes all in its path, from derelict cityscapes to art itself; the vibrancy of the production absconds the music itself, the boundaries pushed on such a record become trivial in modern contexts; the simplicity of the instrumentation is underscored by the mounting complexity of the modern song, and the lyrics often become a victim of their time period, thus failing to hold up to the societal progression since their inception. As an artist, you can meticulously and passionately craft a project, but one of the biggest anxieties faced by these musicians is the uncertainty of what is to come. Because once the test of critical and commercial success has superseded, a more difficult, much crueler test begins: will the product I so lovingly crafted be made redundant in the years to come? It’s this cyclic fable that has persisted for decades of music and by extension any form of art that elicits a lot of empathy from me when an album sounds of its time. I’ll often attempt to visualise the record as it released, and not the unfortunate state of decrepitude that it wallows in, mostly out of respect for the album’s impact. Because consider this: how can an artist possibly predict the progressions made through the musical continuum and thus accommodate for these purely visualised preconceptions? To do this would be to quite literally predict the future, and as great as some musicians are, I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation to inherit. Because time is an abstract concept characterised by its Inobstructable flow, hence our lives exist in a state of ceaseless continuity, and we’re given no insight into how it will flux. How is an artist supposed to account for the eternal cascade of the universe? The more you think about it, the more mind boggling it becomes.
But what’s more perplexing is how Radiohead’s discography is chock full of classic records that have only becomes more appreciated with time. Boasting the emotional resonance lacking in the majority of albums seemingly without effort, the typical Radiohead album carries an agelessness that permeates even the production. Ok Computer is an album whose lyrical themes still pertain to even the modern man, becoming more relevant in the digitalisation of our world. Conversely, Kid A is a record that transcends genre, with its tendency to convulsively morph from style to style such that nothing has touched its soundscape since. And most recently, A Moon Shaped Pool is an album borrowing from such classic styles of music and the relatability of love to the point of only growing on listeners over time. Indeed, Radiohead’s music often transcends time, engaging with production uncharacteristic of the the decade it hails from. Furthermore, the Lyricism of their songs is so inseparably linked to the human condition that it is merely impossible for the sentiments expressed to age; unless the human race undergoes a genetic, evolutionary metamorphosis of grandiloquent proportions, there’s no way Thom Yorke’s writing is going to fall impactlessly on youthful ears.
In short, even in the face of change, Radiohead’s discography stands individualistic and proud, which is why I find it fascinating that Radiohead’s seventh album In Rainbows embraces themes of transience more directly than their previous works. As is universally known, a rainbow is a natural phenomenon produced by the reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets, signifying the presence of sun and rain. Whilst the symbolism of a rainbow differs between mythology and religion, there’s one constant is its scientific origin, that being a dichotomous shift in the weather, a change of the climate. It’s a colourful crescent lingering as a reflection of the rain, something we can see but never physically touch. Hence is the fleeting nature of our internal and external world; our spirit is never something we can make physical, intimate contact with, but its reflected by change. It’s for this reason that I’m of the view that the most reliable portrayal of human spirituality is how it reacts to life’s transitory states. Only through observing how impermanence takes its toll on us can we hope to glean what is most important to us. All of these themes are intimately explored on In Rainbows.
Much like Radiohead’s other works, In Rainbows is nothing performative or inauthentic. It spends its ten track, 42 minute runtime using colourful, breathtaking soundscapes to explore the creation and dissolution of human relationships, with others and ourselves. As previously mentioned, the emotional impetus of this album is change, and how every facet of our relationships can be either burnished or victimised by it. The tragedy of a relationship is that human beings are hardwired to hold onto it, so perhaps it can be considered an evolutionary flaw the way the loss of a relationship is extinguished by mental anguish. At the end of the day, the things we latch onto are the things that destroy us. In a way, our relationships suffer from the same fate of an outdated album, with the music in question akin to black and white photos from a past age. With all that being said, Radiohead illustrates an ability to make albums indifferent to time simply by musically and thematically exploring timeless subject matters and sounds. Refusing to engage with fleeting trends or wavering modernism, Radiohead as a collective musicians are unquestionably dedicated to their craft, eluding the pressures that come with making music in accordance to current industry standards.
All of this is pointless however without the music being brilliant enough to back up the themes, and thankfully Radiohead’s grasp over musical sensibilities is as meticulous as their understanding of the intrinsic complexities of humanity. What makes In Rainbows so brilliant is multifaceted, with a plethora of musical components working harmoniously to create something special.
Firstly, the percussion on In Rainbows is stellar. The mind-numbing repetition of the stabbing drums hits strike primordial splendour, eliciting rhythmic convulsions of dance whilst submerged in the album’s musical ecstasy. The ambrosial crunch of the drums is akin to that of brown leaves from trees stripped of their auburn attire by the Autumn days passing by. Sounding as colourful as they do desolate, the staccato of each hit embellishes the pining tunefulness of each song. Without Philip Selway’s masterful work here, In Rainbows would not have the beating heart necessary to carry the life of these tracks, no unrelenting tempo to facilitate progression. Whether its through the gentle symbol crashes of Nude, the swimming drum taps of All I Need, or the stuttering strikes of Videotape, the percussion on In Rainbows never fails to add meaningfully to the lush instrumental timbre of the record.
Just as impressive are Thom Yorke’s vocals. Before 2007, Thom Yorke was already a highly accomplished vocalist. Exquisitely sentimental, the whines and croons on records like Ok Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac never came across as overly zealous like various Britpop/Alt Rock vocalists. Instead, Yorke’s voice adheres to the yodelling hysterics of a deeply haunted man. His masterful grasp of the falsetto causes his songs to shine and sway, often harnessing a ghostly quality filled with rousing sentimentalism. What’s even more mollifying about Thom Yorke is his tired moans agnate to someone too busy to die yet too tortured to live. Since Pablo Honey, the awkward strains of Yorke’s voice have gradually dissipated, and the anxious energy radiating from his earliest days as a vocalist soon cleared. Since Ok Computer, Thom Yorke has had very little to prove to music fans. However, on In Rainbows, Thom Yorke reaches spectral new heights. On songs like Nude and Reckoner, it sounds like Yorke’s vocal register is being pushed to the limit, masterfully elevating to the most beguiling of pitches. His ability to effortlessly sweep between registers to formulate a cohesive performance is especially notable here. In Rainbows against all odds is an across the board improvement for Thom Yorke, marking a late career finesse absent from the majority of vocalists.
Furthermore, the dynamic proxemics of In Rainbows’ instrumentation is yet another progression for the band. Jonny Greenwood is at his most polyphonic here, juxtapositioning the rowdy alt rock roots of nineties Radiohead with the atmospheric electronic influences of the Kid A/Amnesiac. Whilst the band took a moderately successful swing at such eclecticism on 2003’s Hail to the thief, Greenwood’s arrangements and playing felt clunky in that they often failed to walk the fine line between these two extremes. However, the growing pains of this fusion have all but alleviated on In Rainbows, presenting a moody blend of Alternative Rock and electronics, whilst injecting more pop sensibilities than your average Radiohead album. Whilst there are tracks that skew more towards one binary, like the post punk inspired Bodysnatchers or the predominantly grandiose Weird Fishes / Arpeggio, 15 Step and All I Need present an ultimatum encompassing the two. The transitions within the songs sound effortless, allowing the songs to flow whilst boasting such a diverse, innovative appeal, all the while proving to be exceptionally catchy. All of this is aided by the exuberant, serene and sheening productive, whereby all the sounds coalesce in a perfect mix.
With all this being said, the vivid themes, the exemplary drumwork, the sprightly vocal performances, the mouthwatering instrumentation and the sparkling production, it should comes as no surprise that the tracklisting is nearly spotless.
15 Step begins with the enchanting euphony of crisp drum hits with bastinade akin to the melody of raindrops skittering over a puddle of Strawberry Jam. Throughout the song, this syncopated drum patterns morphs between various forms, utilising various claps and electronics effects to increase or decrease their volume. After the brief percussive intro, these topaz tinged guitar melodies start to shine resplendently, like the the rainy drum hits have reflected and refracted a multitude of colours onto the mix. As the song progresses onto its chorus, the textural intensity of the song heightens with distant, nectareous symbol hits at the back of the mix as the vocals devolve into Yorke’s iconic groans. Amongst the urgency of the instrumental however, there are a number of notable details present; for example, the reverb drenched vocals when Yorke sings the words “15 Step” add an otherworldly quality to the song’s beauty. Eventually, the swift and stabbing tempo trails off into a delirious dirge of piano keys, before the percussion returns with a tantalising electrified sheen. Lyrically, the contemplates the change in a relationship, describing the emotional highs and lows of such. By harnessing the imagery of fishing, as well as a trap door, Thom Yorke paints on this thematic canvas, creating the sense that Yorke feels emotionally toyed with by his other person. It’s a beautiful, fast paced song that breezes through its ideas without any slow spots.
A second song that deserves an individual breakdown is Nude, easily one of the most beautiful songs in Radiohead’s catalogue. Illusory drones and hums give way to Yorke’s spiritual falsettos and Greenwood’s sheening stringwork, punctuated by some of the steadiest drumwork on the record. The instrumental drifts intangibly like a lucid dream, like you understand the concept of momentary bliss, but even still you want to savour every drop of it. The spacious, auroral atmosphere surrounding Thom Yorke’s vocals are nothing short of Soprano; Yorke is at his peak here, crooning, crying and wailing on the line between a functioning human being and a broken man. The power of transient beauty is on full display here, taking the listener on a Celestial flight through the Welkin blues of the sky alongside sheartails and Skylarks, before swandiving at the song’s emotional catharsis. Nude is a song that understands the inexplicable hollowness of human life, and what it’s like to travel from one dream to the next without any sort of gratification found in pursuing them. Perhaps Nude is a song that suggests that we strip ourselves of our desires, removing the attire of external hopes, instead shifting our focus internally.
Weird Fishes / Arpeggio is another notable track. As the title suggests, the song makes use of various sun soaked guitar arpeggios that swim through its length. Momentum builds as additional guitar strings are added, eventually forming a sea of a mix. Thankfully, a syncopated drum melody unrelentingly cuts through the arpeggios, backstroking through the ocean of instrumentation enveloping them. The timbre is so thick here; when the song begins, we’re merely dolphins surging sentimentally through the shallows, waddling through vibrant anemone. As the song continues, the sun’s rays penetrating the waters never leaves our body, but throughout the journey shoals of fish sojourn with us. These are the weird fishes, the creatures that travel alongside us that despite swimming so close to, we can never seem to understand. All I Need continues this underwater theme, though its agnate to presiding a diving bell which is plunging into the darkest parts of the ocean. The abyssal drone followed by the murky synthesisers and shipwrecked drum machine embellishments enshroud the listener with aquatic alienation. In this song, the narrator’s dependence on a relationship is made very clear, before reaching an eruptive, poignant finale.
Reckoner is perhaps the most renowned song on In Rainbows, and for good reason. Much like 15 Step, the drums bury the mix, but even more thoroughly in Reckoner. Instead of sounding like a maestosos of rain droplets however, the percussion of Reckoner is more agnate to the chiming of a train door, as if another journey is about to begin. This proverbial train hurtles slowly into action with the introduction of a tender guitar melody, before launching into optimal speed once Yorke’s falsetto materialises evanescently. A long car, train or plain journey between two locations is often an isolating experience, one filled with brooding introspection; Reckoner captures this flawless, with the musical imagery of locations outside drifting in and out of view evoked effortlessly. It’s this relatable feeling that makes Reckoner, and by the extension the entirety of In Rainbows, so captivating.
Finally, Videotape is Radiohead’s most emotive, tear jerking closer, featuring one of the most depressive piano melodies I’ve ever heard. They ring like the cyclic thought patterns of a tortured soul, with the percussion appearing at the halfway point sounding reminiscent of a looping tape recorder. We’ve all felt it. The aching feeling experimented at a wordless goodbye, when something truly beautiful and meaningful ends. The shredding of a relationship. The soul crushing epiphany that things will never be the same again, that the effort and care poured into this aspect of your life was doomed to crumble. It’s this heart wrenchingly relatable feeling that Videotape elicits everytime that makes me love the song very much.
Despite the brilliance of the splendiferous track listing, here are a few minor flaws. For one, House of Cards is a song that, whilst rousing in its own way, pales in comparison to the majority of songs here, with its themes of Love better dissected on other songs on the album. Additionally, Faust ARP as an interlude, whilst a necessary palette cleanser after Weird Fishes and All I Need, filled with melodic pleasantries, functions as one of the band’s least effective interludes. Simply put, its beaten out by Fitter Happier, Treefingers and Glass Eyes in terms of quality. A criticism much more all encompassing is how In Rainbows’ tight pacing makes it feel a little too much of a breeze at points, like on Bodysnatchers which transitions fast between Post Punk sensibilities and delirious electronics. However, none of this stops In Rainbows from being a truly phenomenal record that saw Radiohead take their musicianship to staggering new heights.
In Conclusion, whilst In Rainbows’ pacing can feel too fast at points, leaving the experience feel slightly incomplete overall, the majority of material here is Radiohead at their creative peak. Talent-wise, In Rainbows is the culmination of all of the Band’s past records, taking every stepping stone, from the grunge days of Pablo Honey, the Alt Rock/Brit Pop of The Bends and Ok Computer, the experimental electronic nature of Kid A/Amnesiac, to the multi genre mingling of Hail to the thief, all the way to this record. Whilst I prefer Ok Computer, Kid A and A Moon Shaped Pool, In Rainbows represented Radiohead’s sound coming full circle, presenting the band at its most talented vocally and compositionally.