Radiohead – In Rainbows

Secret Meeting score: 100

by Mark Jackson

Remember Napster?  Possibly not if you happen to be the right side of 30.  It was the original online peer-to-peer file sharing service – primarily utilised for the illegal distribution of MP3s direct to your computer. It allowed a rapidly expanding, tech-savvy population to amass a ‘record collection’ without the need to ever set foot in a record store or hand over any cash.  Many argue it was the first major attempt at debasing the music industry – tracks and albums downloaded around the world with no financial recompense ever making its way to the original and entitled songwriters. It was eventually shut down after successful law suits from amongst others, Metallica, Dr Dre and Madonna, following the leak of such artists’ as-yet-unreleased material. It was the service that undoubtedly changed the way that music interfaced with audiences around the globe.

In 2000, Radiohead too had material from forthcoming album – Kid A, leaked onto the site.  Having never previously captured the attention of the US audience (no top 20 singles had been achieved), Kid A was downloaded over a million times prior to its physical release. Far from averting sales, the album went on to secure the number one spot within its debut week on the US Billboard charts; the free online promotion stimulated interest and widened the audience base of an artist previously desperately unappreciated on US soil.

It should perhaps surprise nobody, therefore (although at the time surprising everybody), that despite the music industry acting powerfully to shut down Napster and its widening army of allied technologies, Radiohead turned back to online file sharing with an ‘honesty box’ policy for the release of 2007’s In Rainbows.  In effect, the record was a collection of songs that had taken the group more than ten years to appropriate and master. Eventually turning into their greatest body of work, was placed online and with the blessing of its curators, potentially obtained for free.  It was a marketing masterstroke that achieved the same impact as Napster’s sharing of their previously unreleased album. Fans and detractors alike were talking about Radiohead before a single computer had been booted, to listen to what is Yorke et al’s most desperately beautiful unfolding of music ever committed to record.

Despite the furore over its release, In Rainbows is the unqualified embodiment of an essential record, one that fits our brief not as a hidden gem or underappreciated masterpiece – far from it – but as ‘a record that simply deserves revisiting’. In Rainbows is to Radiohead what Revolver is to the Beatles, Dark Side of the Moon to Pink Floyd, or Highway 61 Revisited  to Bob Dylan; a stand out moment in spite of the brilliance of much that either preceded or has been executed since. OK Computer, Amnesiac and Kid A could all equally qualify under the essential brief. Each pushed the boundaries with regards what could be achieved sonically within a mainstream release. In Rainbows, however, is the perfect marriage of Johnny Greenwood’s thrilling and complex orchestral scores, with the packed hip hop-esque delivery of Yorke’s tumbling, often inaudible, enthralling vocal. It also returned Radiohead’s sublime guitar invention to prominence on a record for the first time since 1997s seminal OK Computer.  Even now, after more than ten years in existence, In Rainbows sounds enchantingly new, exciting and innovative, while remaining as familiar and affirming as the company of a best friend.

15 Step is an aggressive drum heavy opener delivered in the unusual 5/4 time signature. It features a group of children from the Oxford-based Matrix Music School and Arts Centre, hand clapping and the collectively-repeating ‘Yeah!’ This cry adds a disturbing element to the album’s opening. It’s a frantic and anxiety inducing start that transfixes attention and induces a need to move the body in some way, trying to follow the song’s rhythm.

Bodysnatchers similarly has the feel of an unfolding panic attack – ‘I have no idea what I am talking about, I’m trapped in this body and can’t get out’ – it’s Radiohead at their most violent. The vocal is agitated and Yorke’s giving the impression that he is in the middle of an out of body experience. In fact, in an NME interview in 2007 he stated, “I have this thing… just before I get sick I’ll have this 120 hour hyperactive mania and [Bodysnatchers] was recorded during one of those. I felt genuinely out of it when we did that. The vocal is one take and we didn’t do anything to it afterwards.”  O’Brien and Greenwood’s guitars are similarly manic and In Rainbows in its opening eight minutes succeeds in building an intensely feverish scene, critical to the aching beauty of what will follow.

If ‘Side B’ of this record did not exist (if a digital release can have a side) then Nude, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi and All I Need would arguably provide the greatest sequence of any Radiohead record.  The lush, calming, spacious soundscapes break the preceding fever and allow the listener to catch a much-needed breath.  Warm and dreamlike, Nude was ten years in gestation having originally featured on the bands OK Computer tour.  The bass line perfectly anchors the orchestral arrangements mastered by Greenwood. These skills honed while working on the award-winning score of acclaimed film There Will be Blood.  Together with the gorgeous guitar licks, the track blends superbly and is the quintessential demonstration of everything great about Radiohead. It’s the type of track that a master songsmith might fall across only once in a career – here, however, it is still some way from being the album’s stand-out track.  That is a feat that could also befall either of the following tracks.

Melancholic could well have been coined specifically to describe next track Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.   Musically intense and seductive, the rolling, descending guitar hook (arpeggi) allows everything else to grow in intensity around it.  Lyrically, Yorke casts himself in water – ‘In the deepest ocean, the bottom of the sea, your eyes, they turn me’ –  perhaps to escape a long-endured depression. The last repeated lines – ‘I’ll hit the bottom, hit the bottom and escape’ similarly conjure up images of death and the possibilities of the authors suicidal ideation.  O’Brien’s bellowing backing does little to help in trying to calm the goose-bumps that endure on every repeated listen of one of the album’s most visually evocative tracks.

The majestic All I Need concludes the first half of In Rainbows with the most fantastic and atmospheric crescendo; yet somehow, amazingly, we are yet to reach the pinnacle of the record.

Side B opens with Faust Arp – a track that without the vocal could have been lifted straight from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.  Although another fantastic track, it is the final listing of Reckoner, House of Cards, Jigsaw Falling into Place and Videotape that provides the greatest explosion of the most beautiful sounds you are ever likely to hear. There are otherworldly moments throughout the last sequence of songs that simply demand to be listened to, parts in House of Cards that are so fantastically crafted and knitted together that no description could prove justice, and sounds recorded within Reckoner that I am simply unskilled enough to describe. There is a beauty cast within the final twenty minutes of this record which is difficult to express in written word alone. This is testament to the boundary-pushing nature of this record.

In truth, it is hard to decipher lyrically what In Rainbows is about. Yorke’s rambles are often inaudible, and frequently chaotic. But this all simply adds to the drama and cements the feelings of a man in crisis. Each song has a unique and haunting character that adds to the album’s romantic ambiguity.  The guitar tones are perfect. Every string rattle and scrape is audible, and the rhythm section is so meticulously constructed that Yorke and Greenwood are given ample space to embrace their oddities in the most captivating of ways.

During the mid-2000s, the music industry really struggled to embrace the new technology that their consumers were favouring. They became arrogant, remaining steadfastly tied to the out-dated business model that had been used since the dawn of the industry. In Rainbows’ release method was far from perfect, but it highlighted the need for change. Let none of this overshadow the music though. This collection of songs deserve to be the headline news here. If, like many, you have paid for this album on every available physical format since its original release, you still will not have paid enough for what it is truly worth.

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