Each new Radiohead CD since 1997’s “OK Computer” has done Something Great—the critics say so, even if Thom Yorke doesn’t.
And from the moment that the surprise, online-only release of “In Rainbows” was announced, the question wasn’t whether you’d like the tunes. It was where the work would fall within their oeuvre, and how long it would take to figure it out.
So as soon as the preordained masterpiece was released, the blogs and message boards buzzed to life. The critics were at work.
The reason? Figuring out the Something behind a Radiohead album takes a lot of time and a lot of ink. Go back and read the contemporary Pitchfork Media reviews for “Hail to the Thief” or “Kid A”: They’re pretty bad, as far as criticism goes. They give the records glowing reviews, but in vague terms, without quite knowing why.
And it’s hard to blame the writers. Scoring that big Radiohead review from your editor was mostly a pyrrhic victory. Sure, you get the big byline, but you also get to look like an idiot, because it takes countless listens, interviews, features, and tea-leaf readings to really get to know a disc like “Amnesiac.” Cokemachineglow.com ran a hilarious feature a while back called “The Top Twelve Songs on ‘OK Computer.’” That’s the level of canonization we’re dealing with here.
With the five-star, 10.0 ratings, we’re borrowing against the future interest we’re betting these albums earn.
But for once, the Something defining a Radiohead album might be immediately identifiable. If “OK Computer” revivified rock and became an undisputed classic; if “Kid A” exorcised rock music’s antediluvian fears of electronic music; if “Hail to the Thief” was the most haunting expression of post-9/11 anxiety that music has yet produced; then “In Rainbows” is Great chiefly because it’s an album.
Sort of. It’s not a CD—there’s no jewel case or liner notes. But as a pay-what-you-want download, it’s perfectly representative of what modern “albums” are. Plus—oh yeah—it’s got music.
Thom Yorke evidently got all his bleep-blips out with last year’s solo outing, “The Eraser.” On “In Rainbows,” Radiohead once more consists of five distinctive musical personalities, each pulling in their own direction with their own instrument.
Drummer Phil Selway gets to play the funky beats he’s kept in the woodshed in recent years, as he does over the warm bass synth and bright glockenspiel of spacy “All I Need.” Guitarist Jonny Greenwood uses the propulsive “Bodysnatchers” to rock out like it’s 1995 and Radiohead’s an arena band again.
And Yorke still gets in his savant touches. There are the classical fluorishes on the delicate, “White Album”-recalling “Faust Arp”; the drum machine crunch and electronic undertow of opener “15 Step”; the haunting piano lines of “Videotape” battling the martial polyrhythms of looped percussion tracks.
On “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” Yorke sings, “What’s the use of instruments? / Words are a sawed-off shotgun.” There’s the usual amount of vocal retouching, but his spare lyrics are more point-blank then they have been in recent memory. They’re almost unfailingly ambiguous, yet they get deep beneath the skin—at least ours, if not his.
“Weird Fish/Arpeggi” features the line: “Your eyes / They turn me / Why should I stay?” Radiohead can’t stay put; “In Rainbows” is their jazziest, most eclectic offering yet, and it’s a relief to find that the band’s music matters as much as ever.
Despite its intangibility, “In Rainbows” is, in a sense, the first real album we’ve had from anyone in a long time. A release date meant something again; there were no leaks. And while everyone was discussing, nit-picking, and passing judgment at the same time, everyone was also listening.
We were still reducing the album to a rating, still scribbling sentences in our notebooks like “‘Amnesiac’ meets ‘The Bends’?” But we were also listening to the music, on our headphones and in our cars. We started at three in the morning, and we didn’t stop until we turned out the lights. And that’s pretty Great.
—Reviewer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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