After spending the past 15 years apologizing for guitar rock, Radiohead has finally made the “Pablo Honey” they meant to. With the Oct. 10 release of their seventh album, “In Rainbows,” came the portrait of a band that has finally come full-circle with both its sound and its identity.
Nearly as exciting as the album itself was its unique release, announced by the band only ten days beforehand. The highly anticipated “In Rainbows” is completely self-produced and available for download solely through Radiohead’s website. But the real innovation? The blank box where the album’s price should be—denoted only by the words “It’s up to you.”
And so, “In Rainbows” is unconventional from the start—especially in that, for a band known for breaking the mold, this is perhaps their most conventional album. “In Rainbows” takes a softer, more personal turn from Radiohead’s previous effort, 2003’s “Hail to the Thief.” Where the latter was a stumble into politically driven sonic urgency, “In Rainbows” is the band’s shrug of contentedness at a life where at least some things aren’t so bad.
After all, lead singer Thom Yorke and co. have gotten married, had kids and are successful enough to give the finger to record companies while fans jam servers to get a hold of their new album. So it makes sense that the title—not, however, borrowed from a Hilary Duff b-side—is an unexpectedly apt description of the album’s direction. Though not without Radiohead’s characteristic disaffectedness—the slow-burn of “All I Need” features lyrics like “I’m just an insect/Trying to get out of the dark”—“In Rainbows” explores tones of warmth and brightness that create the first Radiohead album where sound takes precedence over feeling.
As if nodding to their first record, the band makes a return to the guitar-centralized album. They sound more like a full band then they have in years—surely to the relief of drummer Phil Selway, having been usurped by drum machines for much of the latter half of their career. This cohesiveness does not go unnoticed, with songs like “Arpeggi (Weird Fishes)” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” propelled by an organic fullness and vivacity.
Most notable, however, is the complete transformation of Yorke’s voice from lyrical vehicle to pure instrument. If on past albums his falsetto has been the cry of alienation, it here becomes a melodic current letting us know that it’s okay to uncover our eyes. The vocal crescendo in the middle of the tragically erotic “Nude,” for example, leaves the listener feeling baptized.
The essence of “In Rainbows” is perhaps captured best in the lyrics “I’m an animal/Trapped in your hot car” (“All I Need”). The album pants with passion and eroticism, a quiet work stalking and slinking its way through string lines and sparkling guitars. It is at once vulnerable and resigned. More than any other Radiohead album, it is a work of synaesthesia. Chords and choruses become visual; color-bleeds and temperature shifts are impossible to ignore the moment you close your eyes. With its unprecedented merging of aching lyrics and bright harmonies, it is a stirring album that asks to be considered, to be felt.
The only point where “In Rainbows” does not move is in its production value. While the no-record-company-attached policy is well worth any shortcomings, certain moments of “In Rainbows” leave the ear lacking. The creepiest-Thom-Yorke-moment-ever at the beginning of “Faust Arp” (he coos “Wakey, wakey/Rise and shine”) is abruptly washed over by the wave of orchestral pop strings that reduce a potentially haunting gem into a nod to the Beatles. “Bodysnatchers” has all the ferocity of an early “Bends”-era b-side, but unfortunately all the demo-quality fuzz as well. And, amidst the quiet passion of “In Rainbows” other tracks, it seems almost shoehorned in as the “aggressive, driving song.” But where “Just” did well mid-album, “Bodysnatchers’” track two position is startling at best.
If there is one thing Radiohead albums are known for, it is their closing tracks; “Videotape” is simply an extraordinary piece of music. Yorke returns to his element at the piano, playing chords that pour down like rain. Accented by a repeated drum set-up that crescendos but never follows through, the melody marches on towards an inevitable end. Momentum builds only to fade away in a poignant moment of acceptance, highlighted by the last words: “Today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”
If you’re listening to an album—especially a Radiohead album—solely for the novelty of its songs, you’re listening to it for the wrong reasons. “In Rainbows” neither reinvents the wheel nor provides comforting consistency; and, perhaps, in that sense it may have broken a few fans’ hearts. But by moving to the middle, the band has created a quiet, moving work that takes its time to—but inevitably will—get under your skin. And by defying expectations, by doing what they want, the band is, in fact, doing something different. And that is what Radiohead does best.