More than once, whilst spinning Black Holes in the store, I overheard comments like “... it’s great to hear Yorke actually rocking out again ...” Many casual listeners thought the new Muse album was Yorke’s solo album, so confused and flustered were they by the mostly inaccessible Kid A and the subtle disappointment of Hail To The Thief. The charlatans seemed to be playing Yorke and company’s parts better than they themselves were, and the rumors and grumblings of the next “new” Radiohead album would have to continue for nearly two more years.
The level of success and influence that Radiohead had earned by the late 90’s presented it’s share of tough choices: should they keep pursuing the sound and form that earned them a rabid fan base and legions of imitators? Or should they take a stab at fearlessly reinventing that sound, if for no other reason than that they were bored to death with the very things that got them there? What’s the defining album of your career when you’re lucky enough to have at least three candidates? Was it the rocking melancholia of The Bends? The clang and paranoia of OK Computer? Maybe it was the fully intentional foul tip to left field of Kid A.
It seems that Radiohead either tossed aside any concern regarding the expectations of their audience, or the audience stopped trying to figure what the hell they were going to do next — possibly a bit of both.
In Rainbows is more successful at reconciling all the splinters and contradictions that make Radiohead who they are than their last release. “15 Steps” throbs with clicking digitized percussion and the groans and rumbles of the band’s most electronic leanings, but by God there’s real guitars in there too. The melodies are back as well, the kind that only a vocalist like Yorke can twist around in his throat and spit at you, urgent in the opening track or downright snotty on “Bodysnatchers.”
Guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien deconstructed and rebuilt the guitar’s role in rock years ago, embracing noise, technology, precision and abandon and mashing them all into an expansive sound of their own. So rightfully, the tones and textures on In Rainbows are as distressed as can be one minute (the splatting, almost flatulent rhythm sound on “Bodysnatchers”) then gently comped on “Nude,” which for all its soothing atmosphere and flowing synths has a menacing set of lyrics floating just above.
Much has been made of the “romantic” sound of In Rainbows, and that it’s a reflection of the band’s growth, comfort and even (gasp) a little happiness with where they are. And while this may be true to a degree, it doesn’t keep Yorke from cooing lines like “dead from the neck up” and “I love you but enough is enough...” As usual, the real meanings of these songs are wrapped up in layers, disparate images and ideas are laid next to each other and all you’re left to do is stare at them until they make sense. As gentle as many of these song structures sound at first, they still contain the band’s signature themes of emotional emptiness, longing and rejection. But there’s a subtle sense of humor at work here that does seem new, a wink every now and then to let you know that they know exactly what they’re doing. Cue up “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” or “Videotape.” You’ll hear what I mean.
Despite the media stunt Radiohead pulled with this album (which involved putting all the tracks for sale online long before it would be available in stores, and at whatever price the listener felt like paying) that bit of hype shouldn’t overshadow what the band accomplishes here — a powerful combination of the many avenues they’ve chosen to drag us down over the years. In Rainbows works, and it works well, but like any album from this band it demands a lot of listening before it gives up all its gifts.