RADIOHEAD hadn’t released an album in four years. Inbetween sporadic recording sessions and touring, Thom Yorke had toddled off for a bit to release his solo The Eraser – for all intents and purposes Kid C – while Jonny Greenwood spindled together the creeping strings of his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood. Though not inactive, the band certainly kept things quiet. A little too quiet. The public – or maybe just me – wondered why they were taking such a long bloody time. Our – or maybe just my – patience was wearing thin. How bloody dare they!
And then it dropped. Radiohead’s seventh album was released with a ten-day warning from Greenwood on the website: “Well, the new album is finished, it’s out in ten days… it’s called In Rainbows.” Pre-orders opened up, as would be expected, but the band had a secret weapon – In Rainbows would be released on a pay-what-you-want basis, including £0. A first for a major band, the release format was hugely praised as a “revolution” and even “the most important release in the history of the modern music business”. A bit much, especially in hindsight, but the effect was, briefly, seismic.
It also overshadowed the album itself. Was it all a clever marketing gimmick to distract from the music’s mediocrity? Had Radiohead become snake oil salesmen, feigning “revolution” while making, as Trent Reznor put it, “a very traditional record sale”? Certainly a band with such sheer fiscal wealth and as global a reach as Radiohead could afford to release the album in this format; were they taking the piss? Were they resting on their laurels as kings of the alternative scene? On October 10th, we found out.
We – I – shouldn’t have feared. In Rainbows (still) represents the band’s strongest work since Kid A; it’s a beautiful, soaring album, borne on lush strings, electronic rushes and – get this – electric guitars! It’s a perfect union of the genre-bending experimentalism of Kid A/Amnesiac and the textured guitar slabs of The Bends/OK Computer. On the still-underrated Hail to the Thief, the band had never been so aggressive, snarling and clawing, wolves against the world. One album later, they’ve never sounded so relaxed. We’re lounging on the aural waves, not being buffeted against them.
Take the standout track of a standout tracklist, ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. It’s a mesmerising, hypnotic tune, driven forward by a rock-steady beat from drummer Phil Selway and a frilless bassline from Colin Greenwood. As the song goes on it’s swathed in layers on layers of gorgeous arpeggi (check that Italian plural) from Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Yorke himself, his voice echoing back at him through the speakers, the guitar lines swelling and rising before a mid-track collapse, Yorke singing about being “eaten by the worms / and weird fishes”. Don’t ask. When the track resurges on that same Selway beat, there’s a rush of strings and a looping guitar riff over the top of the arpeggi. And then it ends. It still amazes me.
In Rainbows is perhaps the finest example of the capacity for Thom Yorke’s voice to be used as an instrument in its own right. On the stunning ‘Nude’, for instance – AKA ‘Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)’, an old fan favourite from the OK Computer days – the opening few bars are accompanied by waves of overdubbed, crooning falsetto. At its end, he crescendos along with the strings. Where most bands would shove in a keyboard or an electric guitar to fill some space, Radiohead just get Yorke to swoon some lovely noise.
It’s the kind of album that can lull you into a blissful stupor before slapping you over the face with its immediacy. Opener ‘15 Step’ and its juddering, time-signature-meddling percussion throws you off guard just as a soothing guitar figure emerges amid Yorkeish oohs and ghostly children yelling. Then the sneer of ‘Bodysnatchers’ starts shredding. A track that most closely resembles the band’s earlier years than anything else on the album, ‘Bodysnatchers’ is a paranoiac, spluttering rocker. It never seems stable on its feet, constantly shifting figures and tones before descending into a feedback-heavy divebomb at the end.
‘Reckoner’, another standout, is a subtly gripping five minutes of raw, dreamy beauty, featuring some gossamer falsettos from Yorke, a stop-start fingerpicked guitar line and mounted harmonies of “in rainbows”, giving the album its title. I imagine this must be what lying inside a rainbow sounds like; “dedicated to all human beings”, sings Yorke, and we don’t doubt him for a moment. ‘All I Need’, meanwhile, is probably the closest to a straight up love song that Radiohead has ever managed, but lyrics like “I’m just an insect / Trying to get out of your light” and “I only stick with you / Because there are no others” might alert you to the track’s dark undertones if the lurking synth chords and frantic piano slamming don’t.
Then there’s ‘Videotape’, a track I still find difficult to sit through even to this day. On the day my grandfather died, a 14 year-old me – for some godonlyknows reason – decided to, mid-crying, stick this on. On repeat. As a result, I’m unable to associate it with anything other than willowy nostalgia and passing on. Anecdote aside, ‘Videotape’ is a strikingly emotional piano ballad, sung with mournful sentiment by Yorke, its clicking percussion building toward a climax that stops on a flatline as Yorke sings, “Today has been the most / perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Listening to it again for the review, it still gets me every time.
In Rainbows is Radiohead at their most human and, as a result, their most beautiful. Everything here feels essential to the album; even ‘Faust ARP’, a two-minute fingerpicked ditty that would have me screaming “cutting-room floor” on any other Radiohead LP, seems vital. The presence of the Millennia Ensemble’s strings on almost every track is a triumph. The band is playing out of their skins and Thom Yorke’s voice has never sounded better. The release alone was an event in itself; good thing the music within drives one of the finest, most flawless albums of the decade.