Put all the marketing talk aside, because what's going on musically on In Rainbows is the best we've seen from Radiohead in quite some time.
There are things to leave behind when approaching Radiohead's new album, In Rainbows. The first is the band's well-documented release strategy. That they offered this album digitally, and gave fans the power to pay whatever they wanted to is a big thing for music as an industry. But, the album is out now, and that marketing plan has no bearing on what this album sounds like, or how good it is. We can also leave behind your favorite Radiohead album -- in particular, the groundbreaking OK Computer and Kid A -- because well, this isn't it. But a band's new album should not have to carry baggage just because the band has already made its masterpiece (or masterpieces).
There are, however, things to keep going into In Rainbows, things that could really serve well the way you hear the record. The first thing to hold onto is the band's last album, Hail to the Thief (more on this later), and the second is the sense of discovery that a Radiohead album used to invite, or even demand, before Thief and Yorke's decent but predictable The Eraser came along. If you can let the band's past fall away while you listen to In Rainbows you will find it has its own batch of surprises and eccentricities, making a band that seemed like it'd done all it could sound fresh again.
Radiohead themselves seem to be ready to move on during opener "15 Step". The song starts in well-traveled Radiohead territory -- a heavy drum loop bumps and chugs along while Yorke's trademark whine waxes paranoid, singing "First you reel me out and then you cut the string". Jonny Greenwood layers some surges of static over all of that and the formula is set. That is, until a surprisingly docile, sliding guitar riff comes in, setting a contrast that carries through the entire album, where everything calm turns out to be decidedly not, and everything anarchic is more childlike and giddy than sinister. As the song pushes on, a battle arises as drummer Phil Selway takes on the drum loops, playing fast and precise as ever, and eventually he wins out. He finishes the song, and the rest of the record rests on his sturdy shoulders.
Perhaps more than anything, In Rainbows succeeds at showing Selway's talent, opting for his energetic live drumming over machines for much of the record. And the results show the band going back to being, well, a band. In Rainbows sounds more organic than perhaps any of its predecessors, and the band is full of energy and even seem to be having fun.
This is the biggest contrast between Rainbows and Hail to the Thief. To go back and hear Thief now is to hear a band that sounds tired and frustrated. Before that, every album sounded like the band was writhing in a straightjacket, pulling at their restraints, stretching seams, screaming at the top of their lungs. But there's something deflated about Thief, even in its best moments. The band sounded like they'd stopped fighting, like they were looking down at the straightjacket, shaking their head, bitching about it under their breath -- but the writhing was over.
But maybe they were just playing possum. On In Rainbows, Radiohead has burst out of the jacket and are running wild down the street, all extended sleeves and flying buckles. "15 Step" and its follow up "Bodysnatchers" are full of skin-shedding intensity. "Do the lights go out for you? Because the lights go out for me. It is the 21st century," Yorke wails on "Bodysnatchers", showing that his fear of control is still very much alive. But here he sounds like he's fighting back again, maybe with the most verve he's ever had, and with Greenwood's crunchy guitars and climbing riffs the song makes for the perfect zombie nightmare.
"Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" paints a deep-water scene with lilting, layered guitars over Selway's tide-steady beat, and Yorke sings about following the only light he can see in the darkness, and it becomes clear that is the one thing you do not want to do. "Reckoner" is a mish-mash of percussion playing down the hall from everything else in the track, and Yorke's falsetto is at its most sublime as it links up seamlessly with distant organs. Vocals rise and multiply only to fall away before building up again. It's a fragile song, and perhaps all the more powerful for avoiding the giant build-up/pay-off construction of older tunes like "Exit Music (For a Film)".
And in the end, what distinguishes In Rainbows from other Radiohead albums is the confidence the band exudes here. They always seemed to know what they were doing in studio, but here there is very little of the self-conscious baggage that came with other records. And while that self-consciousness may have added charm or energy to other albums, that isn't something a band can sustain over a career as long as Radiohead's, and they've pushed past that into a place where their music can be truly subtle. Greenwood's tech-head noodling is kept to a minimum here, but when it's used it is used to perfection.
On closer "Videotape", most of the track is Yorke solo on piano, before Selway offers some faint percussion in the background. The song is beautiful in the way much of Yorke's balladry can be, but soon Selway's established a record-skip beat that eventually yields to Greenwood's drum loop (giving us a reversal of the move from machine to man in "15 Step"), which sounds like its trying to speed past the rest of the track. The results are jarring, and the song becomes something far scarier than it was when it began.
Similarly, "House of Cards" seems benign at first, with its "The Girl from Ipanema" guitar sliding and Selway's rim taps. But the echo on Yorke's vocals gets stronger, and the words start to run together, and some synthesized string lines come in and when Yorke sings "Forget about your house of cards," it is suddenly a line bogged down with emotion, an emotion achieved without Yorke's top-of-his-lungs wailing or Greenwood snapping his wrist on his pickguard.
Everything here seems to work. The organ-pulsed "Nude" sounds like R&B crooning. "Faust Arp"'s just-off beat, acoustic through-the-teeth fury serves as a brilliant hinge between the sweet/obsessive pining of "All I Need" and the frenetic pots 'n' pans of "Reckoner". "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" may be the most classic sounding Radiohead track, building with synchopated verses to Yorke's inevitable freakout, but they let the acoustic guitars do the work here, instead of losing them in a swirl of noise as they go.
And the album as a whole is concise and focused. The ten tracks move together beautifully without a wasted moment to be found. When you get to "Videotape" and you hear Yorke singing "When I get to the pearly gates...", he sounds wound down, but not out of energy. He's in the middle of the street, in his broken straightjacket, tired from running and staring around in disbelief at the space around him, sure that he'll be caught again by the faceless thing that held him, sure that he better soak in all this freedom while he can.
In Rainbows could have been hamstrung by the hype surrounding its marketing. It could have gotten sucked into the energy-sapping vibe of Hail to the Thief. It could have indulged once again in blip-happy noise and come off as bloated and heavy. Instead, Radiohead took their time and got back to being a band, and in doing so they have put out what could be their most consistent record yet (excluding, perhaps, whatever your favorite Radiohead record is).
Because the album was available so immediately, it seems easy -- and the internet and all its blogs and forums certainly encourages this -- to make a quick snap-judgment. Quickness of response, especially related to a release as big as this one, is almost more valued now than thoughtful criticism. As a result, it is easy to pile on a band that gives us art that isn't immediately digestible. Because, no matter how quick it comes to us, In Rainbows is still art, and still intricate. But once you get in, and Radiohead invites us in here more than any other time in its career, the album proves itself to be what we all thought Radiohead couldn't make again: a masterpiece.