Counterbalance No. 127: Radiohead's 'In Rainbows'
The infrastructure will collapse from voltage spikes. Throw your keys in the bowl, kiss your husband good night, and give a listen to the 127th most acclaimed album of all time.
Mendelsohn: After a couple of years wandering around in the digital hinterlands, Radiohead came back home to their guitars and put together a record with everything they had learned over their nearly 20-year-old career. If you are looking for the quintessence of Radiohead, look no further than In Rainbows. Everything the band ever was (and may ever be) was distilled into an odd, genre spanning collection of songs that hits everything between straightforward rock to stark piano ballads to the waltz.
I think it's all here, Klinger. Everything that Radiohead had been seemingly pushing toward -- the sad-sackery, the avant-rock, the lyrical focus on isolation and digital fear -- can be found somewhere in the ten songs that make up In Rainbows. On top of that, we get to see, dare I say, love and hope creeping in at the corners like the sun trying to break through on a cloudy day.
Klinger: You know we've already covered three Radiohead albums, and it's going to be another five years before we get to another one. And I think the main thing I'm going to miss when it comes to talking about Radiohead is your uncanny ability to discern subtle differences between all of those albums. You're like one of those guys who can tell the difference between Argentine and Spanish shiraz (based on their relative piquancy and insouciance) or has a favorite Olsen twin or something. I know this is some sort of failing on my part, but I just can't hear the distinctions. So I'm looking to you here to make sense of another Radiohead album.
Mendelsohn: All Radiohead albums are different, Klinger. Just like both Olsen twins probably have their own distinct identity. I wouldn't know. But with Radiohead, each album represents an evolution in the band's sound. Unless you don't believe in evolution -- which is fine, there is no law in this country against being ignorant.
With In Rainbows, I think it became clear that in this post-Radiohead world, Radiohead was still the best post-Radiohead band around. This album also represents one of the newest entries on the Great List, securing its spot a scant six years ago. Is the canon still open?
Klinger: Short answer, no. When we talk about the canon -- and readers should note that we're using the list compiled from a crap-ton of Greatest of All Time critics' lists at the Acclaimed Music site -- we really are seeing something that's fairly well carved in stone. Considering that art and commerce so seldom seem to intersect these days, Radiohead is one of the few groups to capture the public imagination and garner widespread critical acclaim. (It's true that an even more recent LP is coming to the Great List next week, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.) At any rate, though, since my main recollection of In Rainbows is its innovative pay-what-you-will release model, I'm looking forward to what it is about this particular effort that strikes your fancy.
Mendelsohn: Occasionally we will go around about Music vs. Message in respect to how an album is viewed. With In Rainbows, we get to add another variable to the list: Mode. Freed from their long-term recording contract with EMI, Radiohead took advantage of the technology the music industry clearly dreaded by giving the power to the consumers by letting the fans buy the album directly from the band for whatever price the buyer deemed reasonable. This move went against good business sense and everything the music industry had built over the last half century, it also completely closed the gap between the bands and their fans. On top of that, it was a rousing success and not just from a marketing stand point, everyone was talking about how one of the biggest bands in the world was giving away their new album, but it also paid off monetarily. The band sold an untold amount of digital downloads while taking pre-orders for physical copies of the record. A year after the record's release the album had sold over three million copies. That number included digital downloads from the Radiohead web site, physical copies of the record as CD or vinyl (100,000 of which were deluxe box sets that cost $80 each), and sales from various other digital retailers. And this is for an album that was essentially free—free—proving that music fans will pay for the music they love if they are shown a little respect and given reasonable purchasing options and pricing.
Radiohead made more money in the first month after the release of In Rainbows then it did in total from release of its last album, Hail to the Thief. In all fairness though, Hail to the Thief isn't a great record. I was ready to hand the success of In Rainbows over to Radiohead's blatant disregard for the music industry, but that all came to a quick end once I started listening to the record again, a record I hadn't spent much time with since it was released.
I realized the success of this album was due to the incredible breadth and depth of songwriting on display. It wouldn't have been this widely regarded if it was free and it stunk, would it?
What you get with In Rainbows is a record made by a band that is flexing its creative muscles, free of the shackles of the music industry and at the top of its song-writing ability. I know you don't have quite the affinity for Radiohead that I do, but I would expect that you might find this record a bit more accessible than both Kid A and OK Computer.
Klinger: Well, I am one of those weird sorts who prefer Kid A and it's perverse inaccessibility, and I'm willing to accept that about me. But you are on to something about In Rainbows, even if I do have a hard time remembering much about the songs once the album is over. One thing I've found helpful when listening to Radiohead in general and In Rainbows in particular is that, at their best, they are band that has taken most of their cues from the "White Album". (And of course, Germanic influences, although I have a very hard time sussing those out for some reason. Sort of like how I don’t know what tarragon tastes like.) When I hear a song like "Faust Arp", with its acoustic Jonny Greenwood pickings and spare string arrangement, I get the same mixture of light and dark that the Beatles employed when they were at their most volatile.
I am also curious about something you said earlier about love and hope creeping in, Mendelsohn. I must admit that part of the reason I have trouble connecting to Radiohead is because Thom Yorke comes across as essentially an alienated alien who is baffled by our human concepts of love (and his vocals are clearly garbly on purpose). Is there something specific in the lyrics that you'd like to address to help out those of us who struggle so?
Mendelsohn: I'd point to "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" and "House of Cards", two of the oddest love songs ever recorded—if you want to call them that. One is as straightforward is Radiohead can get, which isn't very, and the other has to do with swinging. If you tasked Radiohead with writing a love song, that's just the type of thing I would expect them to hand over. In Rainbows also marks a departure from the band's typically dour lyrical bent, moving away from the extreme alienation and creeping politicization to a broader mediation on the mundane aspects of the human condition. The paranoia is still found throughout the record but it's tempered with the knowledge that at some point, we all have to deal it and that's just part of what makes us human.
In Rainbows is also Radiohead's most upbeat album (I was going to say uplifting, but this is Radiohead we are talking about). Sonically, the record is far more driven than anything the band had released up to that point, combining aspects of rock and dance that now provide Thom Yorke the needed beat to do his interpretative dance moves, which are oddly hypnotic and almost inspiring in the least self-conscious display of white boy wiggling I've ever witnessed.
Klinger: Oh yes, that is something. And I do want to qualify my statements somewhat. I do think that Radiohead is, sonically speaking, one of the most interesting bands we've covered. Regardless of whatever lack of connection I feel, while a song like "15 Step" is playing, I do find myself caught up in the sound of it all. That’s something that I understand intuitively whenever I listen to one of their albums. Maybe that’s why I bonded more easily with the willfully abstract Kid A than any of their more accessible discs. But that feeling of getting caught up in sound is something that I can readily take away from Radiohead, and even if that’s not necessarily the group’s intent, at the end of the day that's plenty.