No matter how devoted you’ve been to a band there sometimes comes a point when you realize that they’re no longer the band you grew to love, that you’re only buying their new releases out of habit, listening disappointedly to them a few times before tossing them among the junk in your glove compartment or relegating them to a dusty section of your CD rack—or worse yet, selling them back to the store. The magic is dead. You’re tired of feigning interest, tired of spending money, tired of trying to convince yourself you’ll grow to like their new material if you listen to it enough. So begins what I call “musical estrangement.”
And so it was for me with Radiohead. From the mid to late ‘90s, they were a staple of my alt-rock diet. Whether it was the artsy but anthemic Brit pop of The Bends (1995) or the darker, more complex sound of their dystopian-themed masterpiece, OK Computer, their music felt fresh and engaging. I knew I was listening to something special.
Then came Kid A in 2000—the first strain on our beautiful fan–artist relationship. Oh, I could appreciate the band’s risk taking—for a lot of bands such a drastic shift would’ve been career suicide—but no amount of listening to the album brought me closer to finding the distorted vocals and cold electronic blips and pulses of their newly adopted avant-garde style in any way appealing. 2001’s Amnesiac, full of more atonal noodling, left me nostalgic for the days when the band actually cared about melody. I listened to a friend’s copy of their next album, Hail to the Thief, several months after it came out and was happy I hadn’t mustered enough enthusiasm to buy it.
But old musical flames are never entirely extinguished.
In October, Radiohead’s announcement that In Rainbows, their first album in four years, would be available as a name-your-own-price download from their website had critics and diehard fans salivating like Pavlov’s dogs. (It was released in CD format in January). The album hit hard drives ten days later, triggering torrents of effusive praise: “All of it rocks; none of it sounds like any other band on earth; it delivers an emotional punch that proves all other rock stars owe us an apology.” – Rolling Stone
Rave reviews weren’t about to sway me—the band has long been a critical darling. But name my own price? I couldn’t resist.
A mélange of the band’s host of past stylistic leanings, In Rainbows is their most sonically rich album, mixing tempered experimentation with melodic sensibilities. Although the band doesn’t entirely eschew verse-chorus song structure, many of the songs hinge on dynamic shifts and instrumental layering. Opening track, “15 Step,” begins with a pastiche of programmed drumbeats paired with Thom Yorke’s quavering vocal, and just as you’re thinking, “Ugh, not another electronica album,” Jonny Greenwood’s sinuous guitar line slides into the mix, joined later by tumbling bass runs, synthesizers, and live percussion—there’s even a snippet of children shouting “Yeah!” “Bodysnatchers,” the band’s heftiest slab of guitar rock in a decade, builds from a bruising distorted riff into an onslaught of sounds that culminates in frenzied cacophony.
The ferocity is short-lived, though, as the band settles into subdued tones. Yorke’s ethereal falsetto floats atop a gentle guitar and ambient keyboards on the drowsy “Nude” while frenetic percussion and swirling arpeggios propel “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” building tension but never erupting. “All I Need,” the album’s centerpiece, proves that Radiohead can, in fact, still write a song that follows traditional pop structure. A bellowing synth hook undergirds the haunting melody before the song swells into its climatic coda.
The dynamic twists the band deftly employs on the first five tracks are in short supply on the second half of the album, with a string of songs each deviating very little from their first few bars—an acoustic folk figure on “Faust Arp,” a clattering dance beat and silky guitar line on “Reckoner,” a torpid jazz lounge progression on “House of Cards.” Taken separately, the songs are enjoyable enough—well, maybe not “House of Cards”—but listening to them consecutively feels like the musical equivalent of lying in tepid bath water.
Though it sounds underdeveloped, the feverish, acoustic-driven “Jigsaw Puzzle Falling into Place” provides a much-needed spark. The album closes with the minor-chord ballad “Videotape.” What the song lacks in variation—it’s no less repetitive than the aforementioned bath water songs—it makes up in emotional heft with a haunting piano and Yorke’s fragile vocal.
Besides “Bodysnatchers,” Yorke steers clear of his trademark cryptic, paranoia-tinged lyrics. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. He resorts to some pedestrian metaphors—“I am a moth who just wants to share your light” (“All I Need”)—gives a quick lesson in clichés—“Did the cat get your tongue? Did your string come undone (“15 Step”)—and sometimes just tosses off non-sequitur place fillers—“Squeeze the tubes and empty bottles/ It’s what you feel not what you ought to” (“Faust Arp”). But no line is more egregious than his declaration that opens “House of Cards”: “I don’t want to be your friend/ I just want to be your lover.” Prince may be able to get away with lines like that, but not Thom Yorke. Still, he does manage to craft some evocative lines that are notable for their unsettling singularity—“I am an animal trapped in your hot car” (“All I Need”)—or palpable gloom—“When I’m at the pearly gates/ This’ll be on my videotape/ Mephistopheles is just beneath/ And he’s reaching up to grab me.”
Sure, it’s not entirely the Radiohead I’ve missed for the past ten years, but In Rainbows is a welcome return to them sounding like a band again, to writing songs with some warmth, not to mention melody. So, I admit it. I’m rethinking my musical estrangement. Granted, I’m not ready to make a solid commitment again—I could very well find their next CD better suited as a drink coaster—but I’m willing to listen to what they have to say.