Time flies, it seems like only yesterday that Radiohead’s groundbreaking In Rainbows was released. My intention with this essay/review is to get ahead of the landslide of Radiohead “In Rainbows” 10th anniversary reviews coming next year. For this extraordinary album nine years has provided some perspective on what I consider one of the best albums ever released.
In Rainbows was Radiohead’s seventh album and follow up to their 2003’s recording Hail to the Thief. “In Rainbows” became a sensation in the music business for the tremors it caused when the band deciding to self release the album in an honesty box download format. No band of their renown had attempted to use a “pay what you want” concept prior to their release of “In Rainbows”. Unfortunately what often gets forgotten in the hype following that decision is the breathtaking music that was on offer. In some ways the hoopla of the way it was released obscured the concentrated brilliance of the work. The album would come to signify many things, but it also marked the end of a lengthy hiatus for the band and raised questions for the band about their post record label existence.
The beginning of “In Rainbows” recording would find the band struggling through an extended period of soul searching about what was next for Radiohead after leaving record label support. The band worked on writing and recording “In Rainbows” from February of 2005 until June of 2007. The album’s beginning was a start and stop process that seem to quickly spin out of control. Radiohead had decided that along with not re-signing with a major music label that they would intentionally shake things up by not utilizing their long time collaborator and producer Nigel Godrich. At first the band thought of self producing the recording, but eventually decided to bring in producer Spike Stent of Bjork and U2 fame in an attempt to venture off in a new direction. The time in the studio with Stent proved to be frustrating and fruitless. As Thom Yorke stated of that time, ‘We spent a long time in the studio just not going anywhere, wasting our time and that was really frustrating.” Their new songs kept tantalizing them that there was something there and a breakthrough was just around the next corner, but that gestalt moment did not seem to materialize. Stent upon listening to versions of the songs said they weren’t good enough. The band began to wonder if the time for a break up had arrived. Stent and the band agreed to end their collaboration in 2006. In hindsight the members of the band have attributed their slow progress to not having the pressure of a label to focus them. Additional Yorke has fessed up that without Nigel Godrich there to crack the whip he had completion issues.
Another factor that led to the band questioning if the end of Radiohead had arrived was the success of the sideline projects that both Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke had created. Jonny had successfully branched out with his orchestral and movie sound track work and Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser had been well received. Looking back now it is clear to see that these projects actually strengthened the band because it allowed each of the members, if they elected, to scratch itches in other musical genres and formats. This would free them up to better concentrate when operating within the band’s orbit. However in the early struggling days of working on “In Rainbows” that fact was not so apparent, adding to the misgivings band members had about the future of the band.
Radiohead attempted to get the creative ball rolling by toured Europe and the US with embryonic forms of many of the songs that would appear on “In Rainbows”. The touring allowed the band to re build their shattered confidence in the direction they were heading and modify and edit the songs. The sink or swim approach to the songs on tour helped the band get a grip on what they wanted to accomplish, clarifying their vision. Touring which was often in the past viewed as a nightmare for the band helped the creative process gel. The re-entrance of Nigel Godrich was the other catalyst that brought things back on track. As Yorke has stated, “Nigel gave the band a walloping kick up the arse.” Instead of questioning their need for Nigel’s presence, the band gave into the realization he was an important player in nursing their creative spark.
In October 0f 2006 the band headed to a location discovered by Godrich, Tottenham House, Marlborough, Wiltshire. Godrich and the band worked for three weeks in this wreck of a house while living in RV’s. The caravan camp out feel and strange vibes from the house led to highly productive sessions. The band would come out of the three weeks with the songs Jigsaw and Bodysnatchers completed and feel like they were finally getting somewhere. The recording sessions then moved to Halswell House, Taunton and The Hospital, Godrich’s studio in Covent Garden. These sessions produced Videotape and captured on tape the elusive white whale Nude. The beginning of 2007 saw the band return to their home studio, Canned Applause in Oxfordshire. During this period the band would release photos, lyrics and snippets of songs on their website, Dead Air Space. Radiohead would plug along and recording would finish in June of 2007. The sessions produced a total of 16 songs not counting the prior recording of “Last Flowers; which had initially been intended for Yorke’s “The Eraser” solo release. Desiring a tighter play list than that of “Hail to the Thief” the band was now faced with having to winnow down the number of songs that would be selected for the playlist. They were looking to avoid the mistakes they believed were made on “Hail to the Thief” which they felt suffered from too many and too diversely styled songs. They would cut down the album playlist to 10 songs with an approximate run time of 45 minute. They retained the remaining songs for release on the limited edition box set.
The gorilla in the room still remained. How would Radiohead release the album with out a record label? In a period that spanned over a year, management and the band played with the idea of how to accomplish this task. The band was dedicated to releasing the album in a way that would let it be digested by the music listening public first; rather than the music publications and reviewers weighing in and telling people what to think about the album. That desire indicted the album would need to be self released. Re-signing to a label became a less viable option the closer the band got to the completion of the album. Justifying their desire to remain unsigned was the fact that Radiohead band members were turned off when their old label EMI was taken over by the Terra Firma Corporation. The band felt that the company taking over was not interested solely in the music business and would not promote them they way they wanted. So they remained unsigned.
These events would lead to the band and management coming up with a cunning plan. They would allow the completed album to be downloaded for whatever the listener wanted to pay and release the hard copy thorough a small independent label, in this case XL recordings. This announcement would send shockwaves through the music world. The band members would look at this decision with mixture of concern and glee as it appealed to their political and social convictions but was financially pretty risky. What tipped the scale in favor of this plan was that their music came out from under the control of record label executives and directly to the ears of listeners with the least amount of filters. To this day the overall success of this decision is still debate by many in the music business, but the album itself was a huge success commercially and critically. The band themselves would decide to not replicated the “Honesty Box” idea in future releases but they have stuck by the initial decision saying it was the solution for the band at the time. Radiohead would promote the album with a number of webcasts including Scotch Mist which was a New Years Eve 2007 webcast where they performed the album in it’s entirety at their Canned Applause studio.
When examining In Rainbows reception by critics and listeners, it is clear Radiohead had another winner on its hands. “In Rainbows” was universally acclaimed. It sold 1.2 million digital copies, and over 3 million hard copies. It became the 10th indie distributed album to reach #1 on the Billboard 200. Thom Yorke with his famous “Tail twisting” sense of humor also enjoyed the story that Clive Davis went into spasms when “In Rainbows” upon its hard release beat out Alicia Key’s album “As I Am” and Mary J Bliges’ “Growing Pains” in the first week of January 2008. This sales victory happened even after the “Pay What You Want” offering. This fact still sends Yorke into fits of laughter years later. “In Rainbows” would be short listed for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize. It would garner Grammy nominations for Producer of the Year for Godrich, Album of the Year, Best Rock Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal, Best Rock Song for House of Cards, Best Short Form Video again for House of Cards, and win Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album, and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Packaging. In Addition the album won the Brit Awards Album of the Year. All of these accolades displayed what a spectacular album the band had created.
Musically and thematically the album would be a volte face from Radiohead’s more recent works. These songs shook off the isolation and overt political commentary of their prior work; opting instead for something remarkably emotional and close to home for the band. Yorke described the tracks as his vision of “seduction songs”. The feeling was different from Hail to the Thief” but was also the culmination of what had been attempted on “Hail to the Thief”. The goal being a spectacular marriage of everything on offer in the studio and also the warm feeling of a band playing together live. When examining the discography of the band up until that point, “Hail to the Thief” becomes an ersatz John the Baptist to the perfection that is “In Rainbows”. Everything is utilized on the album but it is so perfectly balanced and formatted that it never feels like a swirling mess in the kitchen sink. Unlike “Hail to the Thief” where Yorke tried to mute his political opinions but thankfully failed miserably,” In Rainbows” has little overt political overtones with the possible exception of Faust Arp. Yorke has stated that the lyrics for “In Rainbows” were inspired by “The feeling of anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic thinking there is something I should be doing that is really important… it is similar to OK Computer, but much scarier.” Yorke was also inspired by his fears about death and aging, stating” it (In Rainbows) is about the panic of realizing you’re going to die”. The album is a heroic effort to undercut much of the emotional isolation of their prior works. It is charming and clever like its creators. “In Rainbows” offers up a vulnerable cynicism that shape-shifts both in mood and technique from start to finish.
As in every work by Radiohead the first song announces the intent of the album. Here with 15 Step we get a song that examines middle age and how we all get blown off course from our original intentions. It notes we all start off with the piss and vinegar of our convictions and along the way we settling for so much less than what we dreamed. History repeating itself is encapsulated in the repeating refrain, “How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong? The song also confronts death, “One by one it comes to us all, it’s as soft as your pillow … fifteen steps then a sheer drop.” The song accompaniment is a thing of beauty with the stutter step polyrhythmic percussion married to a spectacular guitar riff and Colin Greenwood’s unforgettable bass pass. The song becomes a swirling dervish of hypnotic beauty as the sum is greater than its parts and what should not go together becomes something just a little short of alchemy. Yorke is a master of his vocals conveying all the cynical wonder he has at life’s contradictions. The song is a hell of a way to start off the album and indicates all the mastery that will transpire on the release. The band powers on with Bodysnatchers. There are a few back stories to the song. The theme was inspired by Victorian Ghost Stories meeting the Stepford Wives, with all their valium disassociation. Also informing some of the anger found in the song is Yorke’s mental state which was full on hyperactive mania, which he suffers from when he is about to enter a period of physical illness. The song captures a number of vivid images. The frustrating limitations of our physical bodies, and threats of mental illness, “I am trapped in this body and can’t get out”, and the losing fight we have against old age. The song also examines the distance between people and not being able to understand where a person is coming from in their mental processes, “I have no idea what you are talking about”. The song moves on to the closing down of opposing opinion and dismissal of dissent. The accompaniment perfectly serves these thoughts. The aggressive guitar work sets the stage for the angry incredulity of the lyrics. The song is an inspired blending of each member’s skilled musicianship producing another mini master piece that underlines the frustration of attempting to not going quietly into that goodnight.
Nude is a song that is a legendary white whale for many long time Radiohead fans. The song first started to appear in live sets as far back as Ok Computer tour. “Nude” has gone through numerous permutations in musical accompaniment through the years. It is finally captured on “In Rainbows” in its most alluring version. The track was initially about not getting too big for your britches; in this rendition it turns into a hymn on the human condition and is the antithesis of a self help tape. It doesn’t get any more non inspirational than the lyric, ”don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen.” The reassurance of Yorke’s soothing delivery undercuts the heart rendering sad realizations of the lyric. Debated is the pain that comes from baring one’s soul, the nude of the title, and the pain and rejection that too often follows. The song is a lovely contrast to the manic feeling of Bodysnatchers with its lush strings and deep bass that again make for a mesmerizing selection.
From the calm of “Nude” the album moves onto Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. This is one of my favorite tracks and has always been one of the figurative tent polls to drape the album over. The lyrics can be interpreted a number of ways. They seem to deal with relationship issues, the good and bad of commitments along with depression, suicide and the ideas of escape. The idea of escape is best expressed in the lyric; I’ll hit the bottom, hit the bottom and escape.” Escape what? The listener needs to fill in the blank. Musically the song is sonic perfection and was an exercise where Jonny and Thom tried to see how many chords they could jam into one song. The shimmering guitars hypnotize and Colin is a magician on the bass. Topping the song off with Yorke’s delivery provides another masterpiece that also shows off Godrich’s production brilliance. I find I never want this song to end. But wait the album just keeps getting better, the farther in the better it keeps getting. The band raises the stakes with each song and comes out a winner.
All I Need is simply uncomplicated beauty. The title gives the impression it is going to be a love song and it is, but only in the way Radiohead can do it. The track looks at love and commitment from the side and not head on. The song describes someone who is hanging on through the push me/ pull me of a relationship. The person is willing to accept that little piece of the other person that is available to be shared, and makes the most of it because they are entrapped in their love for the person. There are heart breaking images of that irresistible draw, and the idea of being so taken for granted that the devotee is like a piece of furniture over looked. “I’m the animal trapped in your hot car… I am all the days that you choose to ignore. You are all I need; I’m in the middle of your picture lying in the reeds… I’m the moth who just wants to share your light.” Yorke at the end finally states the situation is all wrong and should not be that way but uncannily indicates it is alright as long as the person can stand it, “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” The mournful strings provide an elegiac feel as the song builds to the crescendo with the piano and xylophone adding pathos. The spectacular drum explosion also relays the emotions that are shooting all over the place adding again to the drama of the piece.
Faust Arp is the one glimpse of politics that leaks through. Taking a page from Goethe’s Faust, Yorke portrays our society as offering our souls for immediate gratification, unthinking what that gratification costs future generations and the environment. “An elephant that’s in the room…in duplicate and triplicate and plastic bags.” It also attacks many peoples’ lack of the ability to reason and our rationalization of bad ideas, the pointlessness of so many things and the information age that overwhelms us, “Dead from the neck up I guess I’m stuffed”. This whole head shaking disappointment with civilization is accompanied by a sweet acoustic accompaniment that is made fecund with strings which soften the venom in Yorke’s lyrics. It is another stunning song and a perfect set up for Reckoner.
The original song called Reckoner was reworked from a 2001 rendition and then abandoned. On “In Rainbows” the released song retained the song’s name and adds in the title of the album. The original “Reckoner” eventually became the song Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses released as a solo work by Yorke in 2009. The song that became “Reckoner” on “In Rainbows” is a thing of transcendent beauty. Again the lyric ruminates on a dark topic, the finality of life and the grim reaper as the Reckoner. The track attempts to square the fact that we know we all die yet do not hesitate to run in the rat race and allow distractions to draw us from that final truth, “You are not to blame for bittersweet distractors, dare not speak its name… dedicated to all human beings”. The song reaches the pinnacle of emotions discussing the thing we all fear when alone in the dark. Yet the lyrics admire how human beings rather than becoming paralyze by this overwhelming fear persevere. As humans we each knowing we die and die alone which leads to the penultimate lyric, Reckoner, take me with you”. Yorke is all over the emotions needed for the delivery and channels them to perfection. A hat tip to Phil Selway’s spectacular Indian influenced cymbal work which is as evocative as Yorke’s delivery. The song is sublime perfection.
I can never get thought listening to the next track House of Cards without thinking of the movie” The Ice Storm”. I think it is the lyric, “Throw your keys in the bowl kiss your husband good night” that evokes that strong imagery. “House of Cards” is a song of seduction and betrayal that is started off with another killer lyric, “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover” wow! The lyrics convey the animal instinct of human relations and the fragility of human relationships which are as delicate as a house of cards. There is the denial that betrayal can happen, denial in taking part or participating in betrayal and denial of blame. The accompaniment is almost plodding and pedestrian at first but then the impact is delivered through the paralleled strength of the music and the lyrics landing their punches. The crunchy guitar is almost like drops of acid falling on the fabric of conventionality as it gives way and unravels. The song is breathtaking in its clarity.
Jigsaw Falling into Place was inspired by Yorke’s witnessing the weekend party chaos in his university home town of Oxford. He captures the images of false elation caused by the boozing that is used to cover the ever present abyss that awaits us emotionally. “As your bad day disappears no longer wound up like a spring before you had too much come back in focus again… before you’re comatose.” The cynicism in Yorke’s vocal is palpable. The accompaniment starts acoustically then breaks out running full and away escalating and going around and around finally breaking out into a cacophony of splendid sonics, like a pub crawling bender at its apex. “Jigsaw” is the distraction before the reveal in the truth shell game where the last track will sweep way all the game playing and get down to the true enigma of human existence.
The last round is served and we are brought to the end of the release, the luminous Videotape. The song was an agony for the band to record and was subjected to numerous permutations till one day Godrich and Jonny Greenwood stripped the song to a minimal ballad. This is the version that appeared on the album. The impact of this song is like a concrete block being chucked at your soul. It is obviously about death, fear and the bittersweet acceptance that the life we each lead will end. The realization hurts like hell but is even more sorrowful when we think of those we leave behind. We are presented with the image of arriving at the pearly gates with a review of the tape of our lives; meanwhile Mephistopheles is looking to claim another soul.
The tape reveals its good days and bad, whilst acknowledging the person who saves you from your worst self, “You are my center when I spin away”. The lyrics then switch up to the videotape that many make to convey their last thoughts to loved ones in the only way they know how, “This is my way of saying goodbye because I can’t do it face to face so I’m talking to you before it is too late,” The last stanza is killer “No matter what happens now I shouldn’t be afraid because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” You cannot hear this track and not be moved by its raw evocative emotion. The selection is solemn without getting morbid. The elegiac piano combined with the twarping tape sound effect as the movie reel running out is totally bittersweet. What could have been maudlin ends up transcendently glorious. It is a magnificent ending to an album that attempted to look at the human condition as honestly as could be endured. The album ends with the gentle hum of a cricket in the background.
Radiohead has an embarrassment of riches in their discography. Few would argue that OK Computer, and Kid A are masterworks. I posit that In Rainbows is their ultimate masterpiece. This is Radiohead at the absolute peak of all their illustrious powers. The album is filled with skillful mastery in instrumentation and lyrical composition. “In Rainbows” takes on many topics close to the heart and explores them with earnest insight. The band opened another chapter in their epic career with “In Rainbows” entering their second decade with a marvel of musical brilliance. The band has gone on releasing two more arresting albums, their latest A Moon Shaped Pool is another spellbinding addition to their collection and the oh so rewarding textured beauty The King of Limbs. Along the way members have continued to shed light on more obscure genres and investigated satisfying solo projects. There can be no doubt that when the members of the band convene in a studio, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway creates some otherworldly magic. In Rainbows provides the Q.E.D. that Radiohead is a band for the ages to be cherished and enjoyed.