Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"In Rainbows"--a week later.

(Joshua Masayoshi Huff)

Here it is: my review of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”. Why the wait, considering it came out last week? I don’t know, really—I wanted to give the album a proper listen before sitting down and writing off what would have been primarily hyperbole. I tried staying away from reviews as much as possible (I will list some below, for the enjoyment of you, reader) and from At East (a Radiohead message board). I’m glad I didn’t read At Ease until today—most of the boardies say things that I completely disagree with.

I don’t think it would be right to attempt any sort of review without saying that I consider myself to be a fan of Radiohead. I admit that “Kid A” and “OK Computer” are probably among my favorite albums. Essentially, after purchasing “Kid A” after seeing the band perform on Saturday Night Live in 2001, I threw out all of my other albums (I’m not kidding when I say this—I literally put all of my No Doubt, Lit and Suicide Machines album in the trash) and decided to really start to get familiar with music. I bought “OK Computer” the next week, and before you know it—well, here I am (the hell does that mean?).

I don’t really know how to explain the feeling I get about new Radiohead albums—they’re more than “just albums” to me. I mean, I used to go to the store every three weeks or so in high school and buy albums, and it didn’t really feel special to me beyond the fact that I was listening to new music—it wasn’t the new music that I most wanted to hear. The first thing I’d think was “well, it’s not a new Radiohead album”…and when it was a new Radiohead album, I would be truly excited for months preceding and following the release. I just didn’t see other releases as relevant or pertinent; I didn’t think any band mattered as much as Radiohead. Perhaps that’s unfair—I think I feel that Radiohead matter more than any other band. It’s not really a fair fight to say that no band is a real band because they’re not my favorite band, you know…and that’s what Radiohead are and have been—my favorite band.

I didn’t have that luxury or option to stew in my own excited juices for the new Radiohead release this time—I had all of ten days to get ready. I was let down by the announcement that the band was done recording but that they weren’t putting out until 2008. We’ve all waited for years for a new album—especially because “Hail to the Thief” was so average.

And then, you know—bam! “In Rainbows”. Ten days. And questions—big questions—were going to be answered on this disc…err, album. Where is the band going? “Nude”…really?

I had bootlegs of the new songs that consist a big part of this album since the band’s last tour, but I hadn’t given them much of a listen for whatever reason. I had bad copies; I wanted to be surprised by their new release. Whatever. So, for all intents and purposes, I knew just as much about the album’s songs as the casual, non-rabid Radiohead listener.

My thoughts? “15 Step” starts off with the same sort of drum-machinery as “2+2=5”, but it doesn’t turn into an arena electro-rock bonanza—it turns into a bona fide jam. Jonny and Ed really bring the guitar riffs here, and ultimately, the song is a lot less formulaic than “Hail to the Thief’s” lackluster opener.

“Bodysnatchers” features a beefy, overdriven (to a point of near clipping) riff from the younger Greenwood brother, and the song’s aggressive guitar outro matched with Thom’s “I see them coming” makes for one of the band’s most rewarding outros.

Of course, next up is “Nude”. The fact that this song was put on a real Radiohead album absolutely stuns me—I thought it was going to be a sort of mythical song that would be raved about by fans forever, even though it was not officially put onto tape. That went out the window—and so did all of my old expectations about the song. It sounds almost nothing like the version on “Meeting People is Easy” and assumes an ethereal, angelic tone (it almost sounds like Thom is aping Jonsi from Sigur Ros…who, of course, ripped Thom off first).

Next up is my personal favorite, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which, for lack of more creative words, is just absolutely amazing. There is a definite nautical feel in the music that is matched with the lyrics (“in the deepest ocean/the bottom of the sea”…” I get eaten by the worms/and weird fishes”), and I just can’t get over how the song almost makes one feel seasick. It swirls and twists and just knocks out any sense of balance. The bells part in the “I get eaten by the worms” bit is so beautiful, but the song’s constant ebb and flow is what gets to me. Previously, they’d let one or two rhythms and feelings carry a song. Not so on “In Rainbows”—this album is full of real twists and turns.

The thing that gets me most about “Nude” and “Weird Fishes” is the fact that they both seem to incorporate elements of “Lift” into their lyrical structure. “Lift” is an unreleased song that we shared with you last week on the countdown, and is probably my favorite unreleased piece by the band. Whether this means that the song is officially never going to see the light of day is up to interpretation and only known by the band, but if we don’t ever hear it, I’m more than happy that it can be heard in those two songs.

“All I Need” reminds me of “Crawling Up the Walls”, except “All I Need” has a great outro, that, again, goes beyond the basic structure of the song. Sure, the beat stays the same, but the tension added just makes for a memorable song. “Faust Arp” has been written off as a rip-off of the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road”, but I can’t really understand why. The two don’t really share anything other than guitars and strings. “Faust Arp” hardly lightens up (whereas “The Long and Winding Road” does) and “Faust Arp” strongly reminds me of Elliott Smith’s work more than anything else. To each his own, I guess, but I really don’t hear the similarities (though, as bsto has pointed out, it does sound a lot like “Julia” by the Beatles).

“Reckoner” has been completely re-hauled and sounds great, “House of Cards” sits with me as a “HTTT”-era sort of song that probably won’t be regarded as a favorite of mine, while “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is really a rousing number that feels a lot more dense than it really is—it has a “Dollars and Cents” feel.

The closer, “Videotape”, has Thom sitting down at the piano solo for a bit, followed shortly by circular drums that sound like a vinyl record left on far after it has ended—or a VHS tape being played far beyond the actual tape on the video. This has all sorts of implications—do the band feel that they’ve overstayed their welcome? Is this their sign that they’re putting their instruments down for good, leaving us to wear out our Radiohead recordings? Probably not—we’re guaranteed at least one more disc in December, but it is an interesting enough suggestion. With Thom already having success with The Eraser (blah!) and Jonny doing film scores for the BBC, one has to wonder what the future of Radiohead really is.

At the core of it all, “In Rainbows” sits among “Kid A” and “OK Computer” as the band’s best. The album presents a lot of interesting issues, as did those two albums. It has the most consistent feel of any Radiohead album as well as the most constant theme. This album, to me, is Thom’s most personal lyrically—the man said that you just can’t ever write personally on “Meeting People Is Easy” and sang, on “Let Down” “don’t get sentimental/it always ends up drivel”—and is about all the wrong kinds of love. Unrequited love seems to be a constant theme, and this idea of absolute devotion, even to a lover who has long made up his/her mind to leave the narrator behind for good. People speak of “OK Computer” having an anti-technological/Silicon Valley type of theme, but how do you explain “Electioneering”? Then, there are those who feel “Kid A” is strongly anti-globalization and anti-consumerist, but people are mistaking the band’s tour and marketing (or “supposed” lack thereof) for the album for the album’s lyrics themselves. The band have matured a lot musically here--Jonny restrains himself just enough, Colin brings the bass just right, and Phil's drumming is the best it ever is. He really adds so much to the mood of the songs and his consistency is key--he builds upon the jazz drumming at the end of "Optimistic" that, up until now, remained his shining moment. And, as usual, Ed is criminally underrated.

“In Rainbows” is the band’s most consistent work in every possible way—quality, emotionally, thematically—and I just don’t know how I feel about it. I think it, as a result, the band’s most troubling. It feels like a swan song, and this wouldn’t be a particularly bad album to go out on, but I just don’t know how I feel about it in that context yet. It seems too neat and ties up too many loose ends to be anything other than a final album, but it is just too neat and tidy to be a band that the band will go out on. I don’t think this is the band’s last work and it isn’t important for the review of this album, I suppose—but a band’s last album is always viewed in a different way from the rest of its work, especially when it comes to long-lived bands like Radiohead.

This album also seems to be the band’s most straightforward since “The Bends”…maybe even “Pablo Honey”. It’s not that they aren’t innovating here, because they clearly do on every song with a ton of attempts to symbolize with music (the end of “Videotape”)—but it all seems to actually fit. The wild, outlandish impracticality of songs like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates” is nowhere to be found—songs that I always despised because of their seeming attempts to test music for the sake of testing music (the exact reason I hate Dada).

Essentially, this album is Radiohead truly returning to rock. After “OK Computer”, the question was “how do you follow up one of rock’s most hailed albums of all time?” “Kid A”, of course, showed us that you don’t—and that you re-invent your band completely. The boys were never bothered by expectations, and just when they had us think that they couldn’t care less about rock music, they go and release one of the most solid rock albums since... No hyperbole here. This album is solid—and not in a seven-single, “decent” solid way. It is an incredible piece of work. It answers a lot of questions, but it raises a lot more.

I could keep going on, but that would be a disservice to everyone involved. So, to sum it up fittingly, here is Mr. Yorke:

Where do we go from here?
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now…when I need you?

LA Times
Washington Post

Pitchfork's Review
Pitchfork's Listener Guide (keep clicking the question mark next to the “make your own rating” boxes)
Pitchfork's Fan Reactions

Stylus' Week-long Radiohead blog

Rolling Stone
The Guardian

Alright, now you're ready for the exam.

And, just a quick note. Consider this: TLC said, on their episode of "Behind the Music", that, for every album they sold, they each made 17 cents--and, thus, they went bankrupt (that's still $340,000 for 2 million records sold...really?). Radiohead are not tied to a label and don't have to pay anyone beyond their webmasters, Donwood (for his packaging), their producers (Nigel Godrich and Mark "Spike" Stent...dude "Spike" worked on S Club 7 albums...) and their managers and lawyers.
Considering that they said they're receiving around $5 per download through their site, one would have to say that they are making out quite well--especially considering that they've said that there 1.2 million downloads through their site within one week.

Of course, not every band on earth is Radiohead. In fact, very few (if any) are. I don't think even bands like Coldplay or U2 could pull off this same stunt. And remember, the band are still taking orders for the $80 vinyl LP. Record labels...who needs them?