In some ways, Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows (2007), is a continuation of their experimentation in recent years, experimentation that continues in interesting new directions. In other ways there are some of the sounds of The Bends (1995), one of my own favourites. So far, the album, which was released October 10, is only available from the band directly through the website at a name-your-price value, something that is freeing these artists from some of the restrictive impact of signing with record companies.
In Rainbows is a very highly produced album with great attention to detail, something that may make reproduction in live shows a trial for the band, I would imagine. The result of this production is a very clean and sharp sound, with percussion, guitar, and other instrumentation often jumping out at the listener in stark ways. Although there’s a bit of ambience as well, it’s hard not to pay complete attention to most tunes on this album when they are playing — this is no music for airports!
Despite having played this album a number of times, I still wonder what’s next as I listen, simply because of the rather non-traditional structures of the songs and the interesting juxtapositions of the different instruments and sounds, both acoustic and electronic, harmonic and dissonant. This is what makes the overall aural experience very intriguing. I sit on the edge of my seat for most tracks on this album, even though I do find the high level of production sometimes lacking in warmth or even emotionally sterile at times (but warmth is not likely what Radiohead was going for on some of these tracks).
The sterility I mentioned may well be intentional. The running lyrical themes of this album, which are also echoed by the music, are futility, darkness, and despair — the end, the singer’s end, is near in just about every tune. If he is not falling off the edge of the earth or going to hell, he’s dead from the neck up or trapped in the prison of his body. The album evokes phantoms and there are times, as in “Nude”, when the vocals are best described as the cries of displaced angels.
When you are listening to “Weird Fishes/Apeggi” it is truly the sounds of the depths that you hear, and Mephistopheles (Satan) is indeed grabbing at you to bring you down to destruction, as in the finale, “Videotape”. Despite the haunting darkness of this album there are moments of light, and the finishing lines suggest that light wins out: “No matter what happens now, I won’t be afraid. Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”
There are a number of fast-paced songs here, including “15 Step”, “Bodysnatchers”, and “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi”. It is here that one senses the feel of The Bends at times. The solemn and haunting “15 Step” combines heavy drumming with synthesizers in a sort of sombre harmony. In “Bodysnatchers”, distorted guitar gives way to a whining guitar background reminiscent of tunes on U2′s Achtung Baby.
The slower songs reflect an interesting range of sounds from one track to the next. A highlight of the album, in my view, is “All I need” with its slow cello-like sounds juxtaposed with distorted synthesizers. This gives way to a piano and violin-sounding climax with heavy drumming. Lyrically, here the persona of the singer is a moth trying to get out of the darkness and towards the light, and the music itself suggests some hope in this regard. Also very effective, musically, is “Reckoner”, where the interplay between lead guitar (played as bass) and distant tambourine-like percussion provides the ideal background to the gentle vocal tones that climax in an ambient string orchestral arrangement before returning to the beginning again.
Radiohead’s “Jigsaw” combines acoustic guitar and funky bass in a slow build that leads to a full sound once again more reminiscent of The Bends or OK Computer. Here the statement is made: “What’s the point of instruments. Words are a sawed-off shotgun”. Overall, Radiohead’s In Rainbows proves quite the opposite. It is the rich mix of instrumentation and juxtaposition of various sounds that make it possible to withstand the darkness (or dodge the shotgun) of the album and come out alive. I would recommend this album, as you may have guessed.