Essential New Music: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”

It’s tempting to spend as much time contemplating the tectonic-plate-shifting dynamics of how Radiohead’s seventh full-length was released as it is to analyze the actual content of In Rainbows. So let’s suspend discussion of the nearly $10 million worth of website downloads the group purportedly generated before the album was officially made available in a store (this based upon an average user-set price of $5 U.S. per album, the best estimate we’re likely to see outside of Camp Radiohead itself) and concentrate instead on the music. Which, as it happens, is some of Radiohead’s most interesting work of the past decade and yet, simultaneously, a strangely subdued collection of songs.

We’ve all watched Thom Yorke’s psyche be picked apart ad nauseum since the self-loathing “Creep” made its way into pop consciousness. There’s no need to engage in amateur-hour psychology here, given that: a) Yorke has made clear he’s not the most trustworthy narrator even on his best days, and b) In Rainbows continues to mine the same themes of alienation, societal collapse and/or “that flavor of gum I like’s not in stores anymore” he’s been exploring since the band first ventured beyond Oxford’s cozy confines. What that leaves us with is a set of compositions that are decidedly less icy than the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions (maybe Yorke’s nascent solo career has helped to vent that particular vein of synthesized musical expression) but still less rocking or expressive than the group’s decade-old OK Computer high-water mark.

Some of the quintet’s finest ballads can be found here, non-traditional though they may be. Longtime live favorite “Nude,” the down-at-the-mouth “All I Need,” the neo-bossa-nova “House Of Cards” and the unapologetically lovely “Faust Arp” represent real melodies and bona-fide songcraft, a feature often missing from Radiohead’s output in the ’00s. These ballads set the tone for In Rainbows as a “group of guys well into their 30s taking stock of life” exercise, a notion that even the album’s more experimental tracks (“15 Steps,” the LP’s most Kid A-like moment; the distortion-heavy “Bodysnatchers”) fails to undermine.

Which leads us back to the business-model question. As the music industry’s most high-profile band of free agents, it’s a fascinating bit of career theatre to watch Radiohead playing out its options so publicly while the peanut gallery decides how they factor into the Pop Life. Sure, it may represent a holding pattern while Radiohead decides what its next move should be, but In Rainbows made you look, didn’t it? []

—Corey duBrowa