It felt illegal. That familiar https; a colour gradient that mimicked the dark desktops of hackers and gamers; the foreign marker of a poundage stamp. 10 files, unnamed, with no song protruding over five and a half minutes. The champions of the “album as art” had given the cotton mouthed public ten new songs about aging, devotion, the tech age, solitude, & faith and packaged it as a 200MB data dump. Four years after the iTunes store, seven years after Napster, and roughly five years before anyone in the US had heard of Spotify, Radiohead were drastically reconsidering the consumer payment model for music in the digital age.
In Rainbows invaded servers in the midst of an internet indie renaissance with a contagion of blogs and internet players like the Hype Machine and Pandora rendering the task of launching an underground band handsfree. From 2007-2010, we would see large acts like Grizzly Bear, La Roux, M.I.A., MGMT, Spoon, Phoenix, Rilo Kiley, LCD Soundsystem, Arctic Monkeys, Death Cab For Cutie, Feist, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend, TV on the Radio, and Animal Collective plunge into the mainstream consciousness, developing a wave of alternative music that was pop sensible and more inclusive than the indie music of the 90s. It was perhaps the last great era for bands with real label and marketing attention given towards acts that were inexpensive to promote, namely in part since many had already well-established fan bases.
90’s alternative in its college radio and zine format, seemed distant, but still not old enough to be considered classic; Radiohead, arriving on the scene in 1993 with a lineup that has stayed unchanged, seemed to be the last continuing relic from the fossilized 90s. By the mid-2000s, few could deny the extent of Radiohead’s cache, or if they were the best band working at that time, in what would become the last great era for bands. They had released six albums in a span of ten years, with Kid A and Amnesiac revealed in the span of seven months and averaging one project every other year to allow for concerts in between.
Their sonic identity was towering, well known throughout every large speaker and major festival P.A. system; their ability as a band had been amplified internationally through tours that almost broke them. They had drastically changed their sound three times to marvelous results and their allegiance to new sounds and inability to do anything twice cemented their reputation as purveyors of high art.
The creative direction for their unnamed seventh had never been clear cut. With material that centers around anxiety and confusion with a rapidly changing world, Radiohead arguably operate at their highest under writer’s block. They had been toying with new songs since 2005. To reintroduce spontaneity and force them to finish their material outside of the studio, they decided to tour for the first time since 2004, playing Europe and North America during the Summer of 2006; it worked. Frequent collaborator and Radiohead interpreter Nigel Godrich was re-enlisted after sessions with Vespertine producer Spike Stent produced substandard material. The demo for “Nude” had existed from July 1996 and the band had been jamming with a groove they had labelled “Reckoner” since 2001. Recording took the band all the way to June 2007 leaving them with a clean 45-minute record, the band’s shortest since Pablo Honey.
With little needed in the realm of promotion, Jonny Greenwood took to Radiohead’s blog to announce Radiohead’s newest album was finished, that it was called In Rainbows, and that it was coming out in ten days. Radiohead had not released a record in nearly four and a half years and in five business days their sixth album was going to be released for a price that the consumer deemed suitable, which included paying nothing at all.
It would have meant little to nothing if the album had not been anything but uncompromising in its caliber and in line with their finest work. In Rainbows presented ten terrific songs with a range of mood and emotion, a diverse use of instruments, and a band who had transitioned, seemingly without the expectation to prove themselves. Its promotional circuit, or lack thereof and the format in which it was released comes second to its tightness and the ferocity of its emotion. Its clean 10 songs that bob and weave through a gamut of mood and emotion, resemble some of the finest Radiohead have ever put to tape.
On its 14th anniversary, the people of SMACK celebrate In Rainbows as an icon of the digital age by ranking its ten songs that beg for dismemberment, say to other playlists or a burned CD, or dare I say a shuffle within its walls. Enjoy.
“Fitter Happier,” “I Will,” “Hunting Bears…” Radiohead leave much to be learned from their interludes.
“Faust Arp'' treats us to conventional song structure, in the form of an unfinished demo. Most of the band is absent to allow for its two principal songwriters to provide a transitionary moment and summarize its two major themes: the dissolution of life and the dissolving of love. A folk ballad without an agenda, a bonus track at the centre of the record; one of the song’s best moments has Yorke comparing beating the dead horse of a relationship to squeezing the last bit of toothpaste you can out of the tube. Two minutes and ten seconds.
“Videotape” is known for two qualities: the hidden syncopation that tricked fans into thinking Thom Yorke couldn’t play in 4/4 time… and the song closing an otherwise surprisingly warm Radiohead record on a solemn enigma. Thematically, it shares references to Faust and musings on the great hereafter that ties it together with the rest of In Rainbows, however “Videotape” and its paralyzing rhythm feels more like a precursor to The King of Limbs. It’s In Rainbows version of “Bound 2”: a sore thumb, but welcome addition to an album that allows for creative erraticism.
One of the simpler songs on In Rainbows structurally, “House of Cards” paints one of the album’s most vivid narratives. The song tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, a married woman and a helpless romantic man. Quite possibly in the throes of passion, the man reflects on their personal situations. He is too smitten to be concerned with the inevitable conclusion of their relationship, but the song’s message begins to change as he starts to analyze “her” instead of “them.” She’s trying so desperately to revitalize a marriage, attending swinger parties to resuscitate an attraction that has likely been dead a long time. Despite its doomed nature, the song remains cool and sensual in its sonics. If she can forget about the house of cards she’s built her marriage on for a little while, he’s happy to keep having fun at the expense of building his one with her taller.
Strange sidebar, but I once heard “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” used in the soundtrack for a documentary about Julian Assange. I can’t seem to recall the documentary’s name, but what a correlation. Both Assange and Radiohead have a knack for stoking the flames of discomfort when it comes to our relationship with government and technology and shaking up their respective industries (whether that shakeup be releasing clandestine documents or dropping your new record with a Pay-What-You-Want model). Radiohead have always taken the role of dystopian trailblazers and “Jigsaw” captures the attitude which got them that role to a fault. It’s the closest Radiohead has gotten to a song that can be played at a party, a zany synthline mirroring Thom’s opening vocal harmonies blends with a wall of guitars on the song’s second verse to create an exciting arrangement of chaos. The song’s intricacy (and maybe its conventionality) makes it easy to see why the band never plays it live. But beneath the booze and animal noises, the track continues an underlying mood that creates destruction and dissolve from something as remedial as a night on the town: closed circuit cameras watch over, words are sawed-off shotguns that are fully loaded, and a bar night could turn sour at any moment.
Since “Bodysnatchers” was the first one we heard, it’s easy to forget that Radiohead were not cemented yet as a ten album legend. It was a signal that we were not going to be disappointed: Phil Selway’s impeccable pocket; Thom Yorke’s disorienting warning; and that fuzzy triage of attacking guitars complete with space station, wall of amplifiers, and enough strobe lights to blind the third kind made “Bodysnatchers” one of the most playable tracks on In Rainbows. It’s fitting that the band who made the soundtrack to the end of times would be able to create such a moshable bop to anxiety and confusion, but here it is, a manic episode put to tape like being chased by wolves into outer space. A highlight at Radiohead’s storied live shows, “Bodysnatchers” is as aggressive as In Rainbows gets, the antithesis to the tranquility and provocation upheld by the rest of the record, and because of the album’s nature does not feel like an excursion. Loud, frantic, dialed up every four measures, and the closest thing to a conventional FM radio rock single In Rainbows has to offer.
“15 Step” blends Radiohead’s electronic sensibilities with In Rainbows’ organic soundscape. If we are to go with Yorke’s description of the record, a collection of songs about realizing that one day you’re going to die, then “15 Step” captures the dichotomous panic and ecstasy that can come from this sudden realization in, let’s say, a traffic jam or at a party where you don’t know anyone’s name. Frenetic drums in odd time cushioned by the tranquility of guitar intervals and eerie backing vocals contribute to the emotional swell. Radiohead kicked down the door with something that sounded like it was of its time despite being gone for half a decade. Somehow we were catapulted into 2007, despite being in fucking October. That’s what this band does. With one minute and fifty two seconds, they make you realize how behind the eight ball YOU are.
The breakthrough. Initially written off as a “bad breakbeat” by Jonny Greenwood, “Reckoner” represents the moment the band felt they first got something special to tape and it’s not hard to see why. It’s use of space is flabbergasting: an entire 20 hand percussion section compressed into a single audio stem, a single guitar that fills out its mix, the bottom end of those piano chords, how Thom holds the notes... at the cusp of approaching middle age, Radiohead clearly had the cycle of life and death on their minds. “Reckoner” represents the most spiritual of songs on In Rainbows, posing the idea of the impermanence of material wealth in the face of raw demise and an uncompromising universe. Yorke uses “bad distractors” and dedicates the song's few words to “all human beings,” before utilizing the bridge to personify shores and the eponymous rainbow as a device for identity and individuality. An epiphany in more ways than one.
How “Nude”, a track that glows of celestial sensuality unlike anything in the Radiohead Public Library, was recorded during the OK Computer sessions is beyond comprehension. Where OK Computer consists of 12 tracks drenched in late 90s capitalist malaise, “Nude” sounds like the baby-making music for 2001’s starchild. The song was played live for years but never felt right in the studio. Coming to fruition when Colin Greenwood conjured a bassline that unified its demo, “Nude” represents one of the sincerest, sexiest ballads in the back half of Radiohead’s catalogue. With the use of reverse tape as a primary motif, and a stunning Yorke falsetto, one of his last great, “Nude” would seem to present something overwhelming and large in scale, but instead is patient in its arrangement, introducing new elements after the previous have finished and represent something totally still in an album of forward movement.
For a band that is commonly considered cold and detached, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” captures the humanity of love in a way only the most sensitive art can. Yorke reflects on a lover, either one he is courting or has been with for a long while, over a shimmering arpeggio and one of the most instantly memorable drum breaks Selway ever held down. The protagonist of “Weird Fishes” understands the futility of love, he knows that he’ll eventually be back at square one, whether that be the dating world or the void we must all return to is up to listener interpretation, yet something about this person keeps drawing him closer. The song has an existential quality; it feels as though Thom is living a reality that has already existed and every meaningful relationship is all but a new permutation on the one that came before. “Weird Fishes” is about accepting that reality before hopping back in the ocean.
I never understood why Radiohead regretted “Creep” so much. After several cycles of poptimism and a cultural erasure of the guilty pleasure, the song sits atop their streaming numbers by a long shot and is beloved by practically everyone at least in cult, but in 2007, its deliberateness following five albums of deep consideration and transformation seemed like a creative drunk dial. Radiohead’s timeless existential moment of sound and lyric arms its protagonist now 39 with the same problems, more evolved. It’s similarly morose, yet now with more grounded reasoning and greater understanding of the world he feels consistently wronged by. It’s use of loud / quiet dynamics does not revolve around hooks or verses, but a denouement. It would seem as tragic as the predicament presented in Radiohead’s first single, the one that would expose them to the banals of commercial rock radio, but “All I Need” carries with it something Radiohead were too young to propose in their early career: a solution. “I only stick with you, because there are no others.”
“All I Need,” with its hulking distorted bass synth imposing over drums that often stop completely before catching their breath would seem to put a cold perspective on the impending doom of its surroundings, but Radiohead layer the gentleness of a xylophone and the naturalness of a sustained piano to signal some hope from a band that were tirelessly labelled as dystopian. The song allows for interpretation on a number of levels: bad days & depression, the monotony of sex, the foundation of dependency, how the internet has forced us to accept the difficulty of avoiding people we know we should, but the song’s composition reveals something that cannot be overlooked about the environment that inspired In Rainbows. While technology is not alluded to explicitly, in the way it was on OK Computer and Amnesiac, the idea of a world transforming into something artificial and sedated looms heavily over the album’s mood; Radiohead were reappraising our channels of receiving music and playing with found sounds, filenames, and glitches, less Orwellian than what they had created before.
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