Radiohead/ In Rainbows, 9.8/10

Anytime Radiohead has an album release within sight, general mayhem ensues within its widespread, almost cult-following of a fanbase. The five piece superband from England has arguably turned itself into the world’s biggest (and greatest) band over the past decade, slowly evolving and innovating after 1997’s landscape-changing OK Computer (the greatest album that will ever be recorded, by anyone) and 2000’s experimental masterpiece Kid A. So when the band announced on the first day of October that they would be releasing a brand new album nine days later, and without a label, it isn’t hard to imagine the frenzy that resulted from hard-core fans and the music industry at large, with some speculating that the peculiar release style was somewhat of a cover for the band’s inevitable musical decline. Leave it to Radiohead to shock everyone, in every way possible, once again. With In Rainbows, Radiohead achieves its most beautifully calculated collection of songs to date within an arrangement that flows as though it were a symphony, and the end result is their greatest album since Kid A. Thom Yorke’s voice has never sounded better, and the addition of string elements on many of the tracks flow together brilliantly, demonstrating the band’s reborn focus on the music itself and away from the experimentation that drove some fans away in recent years (although not this fan…).

Still, to say that In Rainbows is a retreat back into the realm of the band’s beginnings of The Bends would a vastly incorrect assessment. The album is certainly more musical than Amnesiac, Hail to The Thief or Kid A, but still sounds completely different than anything the band has ever recorded. Instead of retreating back to the arena-rock guitar that gave the band its beginnings, Radiohead enters new territory on this album, focusing on the pure beauty that they have always been able to create and stringing it together over an entire album. Opener “15 Step” begins with syncopated drum beats that initially render memories of past experimental tracks, but once the catchy guitar riff comes in, we know we are in for a treat. The track isn’t as immediately gripping as something like “Everything in Its Right Place” or even “2+2=5”, but it accomplishes its purpose in setting a great tone for the album, subdued and dark but still upbeat, complete with the sound of cheering children mixed into the background. After that, the album’s only “rocky” track follows. “Bodysnatchers” reminds me of “Electioneering” off of OK Computer in that the song is good, yet seems out of balance with the rest of the album. Midway through, the song switches pace into an atmospheric, soaring guitar line. For those awaiting a return to the rock-style tunes of the band’s early material, this is as close as this album gets, but even this somewhat perplexing track manages to move into the future rather than sinking into the past.

What follows is arguably the most amazing twenty minutes of consecutive music that Radiohead has ever recorded. The onslaught of fantastic tunes begins with the long-awaited recording of crowd-favorite “Nude”, a song that I can remember playing on my acoustic guitar in my fraternity room back in the year 2000. The song has undergone quite a transition since then, but Radiohead nails it by recording a version that is hopelessly pretty beyond explanation. We get a full blast of orchestral string notes through the soft, intimately produced track, which carries itself on the strength of some of Yorke’s best vocal work to date. I was a sucker for the old glockenspiel version which was more chorus driven, but I have to admit that boys really nailed it with this one. “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi” follows with its rolling percussion, submerged-underwater guitar rhythms and some more great vocal work by Yorke, eventually building into a classic Radiohead crescendo and one of the album’s greatest surprises. Leave it to Thom to make a strange and simple line like “I get eaten by the worms/ And weird fishes” so heartbreaking. And then there’s “All I Need”, which is probably my favorite song on the whole album. The track opens with a deep string arrangement, heavy bass and a dancy drum rhythm and rolls along with suave persistence. What could have been a simple romantic tune succeeds as one of the band’s greatest songs ever behind glockenspiel notes, deep strings and an eerie simplicity before exploding into a piano-based crescendo supporting Yorke’s soaring vocals the likes of which we haven’t heard from these guys since “Let Down.”

When the tracklist was made public, serious fans were able to easily recognize the titles of almost every song as a result of the band’s 2006 tour. The lone mystery was a two minute track titled “Faust Arp”, which almost everyone wrote off as something that almost certainly had to be an instrumental interlude in the same spirit as “Treefingers” or “Hunting Bears.” Again, leave it to Radiohead to surprise everyone. This little Beatles-esque acoustic tune integrates some of the album’s best use of string instruments and serves as the perfect glue for In Rainbows. The shocks continue on the next track, which is titled “Reckoner” but bears no resemblance whatsoever to the unreleased track of the same name that the band has played on numerous occasions live. And to say that the new “Reckoner” is better is a massive understatement. Yorke sings in falsetto on a high octave throughout the seemingly redundant but impossibly beautiful first half of the song before the tune slows down to a crawl and picks back up again with more strings, tambourines and more great vocal work by Yorke.

If the album has a weak link, it has to be “House of Cards”, not because it is a bad song or because it doesn’t fit from a continuity point of view. I just don’t think that Radiohead should ever sound like this– not this jazzy, this mood-musicy, this carefree or soft, nor should Thom ever sing the line “I don’t want to be your friend/ I just want to be your lover.” Some people love it, so to each his own I suppose. Moving along, the band hits us with a jangly, upbeat tune called “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which outdoes previous post-Bends attempts at guitar-rock such as “Go To Sleep” in terms of intensity and musical quality while still flowing wonderfully with the album’s somber tone. Yorke adds a classic vocal rant at the end after repeating another decidedly un-Radiohead-like line, “The beat goes round and round!”

In Rainbows lets us down softly as all Radiohead’s great albums have (see previous closers, “Street Spirit”, “The Tourist”, “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, “Life In A Glass House” and “A Wolf at the Door”. Wow…) with “Videotape”, a tune that isn’t necessarily as good as any of those previous closers but one that couldn’t fit the album any more perfectly. That’s the beauty of Radiohead; you don’t always get the ten best songs from a recording session, but you can bet your life that you’re going to get the songs that work the best within one another. The band looks at music as a piece of art, the sum of its parts. This is the reason why the band refuses to sell its music on iTunes, because they don’t subscribe to the idea that music should be purchased as individual pieces. The band puts a great deal of time, effort and work into their album arrangement, and this is something that they take very seriously. As for “Videotape”, a simple piano line opens underneath Yorke’s haunting lyric, “When I’m at the pearly gates/ this will be in/ the videotape.” The song is almost frustrating in its simple beauty and almost intentional lack of building into anything that resembles the crescendo that listeners have come to expect from previous closers. Again, the beauty of Radiohead lies within their ability to shock and amaze and always keep the listener guessing as to what they possibly have up their sleeves next.

“Videotape” ends on a note that almost seems like a swansong. With its obvious references to death, it almost feels as though the band is saying goodbye. And after reaching that conclusion, one has to look back at the overall tone of the album and realize that the entire feel of In Rainbows seems to suggest an underlying sadness. I certainly hope that the band isn’t done making music, but if they are, they’ve certainly gone out on quite a high note. This album is simply crushing, and I’d be amazed if anyone makes anything better for at least five years.

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