More than just crafting a legendary body of work during the past fifteen years, Radiohead has been nurturing a powerful brand identity. Since the late ’90s, the name has been regarded the finest in forward-thinking rock music, and fans have followed the band through drastic stylistic changes with confidence that the iconic Stanley Donwood cover art was a solid quality guarantee. But although none of their post-Bends albums are even remotely bad, that cache of constant innovation has been slightly yet steadily tarnished. Amnesiac‘s duplication of Kid A‘s strides was forgiven because it sprang from the same session as its predecessor, but 2004’s Hail to the Thief just seemed like the rephrasing of old ideas. When Thom Yorke’s solo disc, The Eraser, hit stands last year, it was announced with earned fanfare, became the subject of a leak-related frenzy, and then was almost completely forgotten. With four years spent tinkering, Radiohead stood at a tricky point. The diehard message-board watchers would ecstatically devour anything, but a huge statement would be needed for the brand to actually grow.
So of course, the band members went and reinvented the music industry! Well, actually they didn’t. They weren’t the first to use the pick-your-poison pay scheme, and the business model they suggested probably won’t trickle down to fledgling bands struggling to break new ground. But that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that once again, Radiohead was at the forefront of innovation, worth more as its own content provider than any record label in the world. It was a marketing scheme so satisfying that it felt like art. And more than any single that could have been taken from In Rainbows, the band’s seventh studio album, it served to position the musicians exactly where they wanted to be: once again pushing the envelope. Thankfully, removed from all this sleight of hand, the album is undeniably good. But all of its beauty and nuance reveals a band that’s more comfortably assured than hungry for the shock of the new. The art is wonderfully warm and refined, but that signature innovation came primarily from its delivery.
Opener “15 Step” begins with synthetic beats and low-key singing that suggest In Rainbows might just be Eraser with a few extra hands on deck. That worry only lasts about forty seconds, until a calm and pretty acoustic-guitar loop enters. Where we once might have expected a wild guitar burst from Johnny Greenwood, or later, a continued void of identifiable humanity, we now receive modestly restrained notes. Which of the band’s three spectacular guitarists are providing them is unknowable, and they’re not given any more or less weight than the electronics. Finally, there’s a measured balance between the band’s organic and synthetic impulses.
“Bodysnatchers” follows with the band’s most convincing rock-out since 1997’s OK Computer. As the rest of the album retreats much further into sedate tones, it seems the band is content to abandon those who’ve long been advocating a complete course reversal toward Bends-era guitar slinging for good. “Nude” is the warmest farewell the retro set could hope for. Though it appeared in bootlegs and idle daydreams at century’s end, the song originally called “Your Home Is at Risk if You Do Not Keep Up Repayment” has never been officially recorded until now. Where the OK Computer-era sketch seemed awfully close to the floating miserablism of “No Surprises” (the chord changes still recall that song, actually), the tone of 2007’s “Nude” is that of resilient resignation. When Yorke sings “don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen” against a soft and steady beat, it sounds like an ode to taking what life throws with humor and humility. It’s a tone shift that’s vitally important to In Rainbows thematic aims.
The relative modesty of In Rainbows first falters with “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi.” The shuffling jazz beat and noodling strum soundtrack one of Yorke’s most commonly used and inscrutable images: being eaten by worms (there were several unreleased ’90s tracks that failed to make this metaphor fly). The muddled static is in dire need of the aforementioned volcanic guitar or beautifully sterile keyboard tones. Here, Radiohead the restless adventurers are sorely missed. The following four-song stretch is consistently low-key but more interestingly minimal. Even in the relatively romantic “All I Need,” Yorke can’t help but employ grotesque imagery to blunt direct connection. That sabotaged sweetness is counteracted by the band’s acoustic White Album moment, “Faust Arp.” Tellingly, it’s more McCartney than Lennon. “Reckoner” is unrecognizable as the dirty rock song they’d once played live, with the focus on circular melodies and emotive falsetto rather than bludgeoning fuzz. “House of Cards” confirms that Yorke is out of his depth writing simply about love and sex. Though he refrains from comparing himself to a dying animal, its reference to key parties conjures a picture of Yorke the swinger that’s even more disturbing than the whole worms thing. It’s pretty but kind of boring, really. “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is, like “Nude,” an emotional center of the album. While the earlier track posits that great expectations are a set up for a let down, “Jigsaw” celebrates those rare moments when you realize just how good you’ve got it. No single piece of the mix shines brighter than the others. The brilliance is in the exquisite balance.
The album ends with the quietly beautiful “Videotape,” Yorke’s ode to playing back his child’s preserved golden moments. If there had been a song called “Videotape” on OK Computer, it would have likely bemoaned the gathering menace of government surveillance. How odd it is now to hear Yorke give heartfelt thanks to the modern media contraptions he once regarded with contempt and paranoia. But contempt and paranoia are a young loner’s crosses to bear. This is a grownup album, made for grownups. It’s the sort of record Nick Hornby could have enjoyed without all of his Kid A angst about being too old to interpret a record’s cryptic signs. If that seems a bit depressing for those of us who continue to grow with the band, we’ll always have strident talk of “revolutionizing” the record industry to fall back on.