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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Radiohead: In Rainbows


RADIOHEAD: IN RAINBOWS (2007)

1) 15 Step; 2) Bodysnatchers; 3) Nude; 4) Weird Fishes / Arpeggi; 5) All I Need; 6) Faust Arp; 7) Reckoner; 8) House Of Cards; 9) Jigsaw Falling Into Place; 10) Videotape; 11*) Mk 1; 12*) Down Is The New Up; 13*) Go Slowly; 14*) Mk 2; 15*) Last Flowers; 16*) Up On The Ladder; 17*) Bangers + Mash; 18*) 4 Minute Warning.

General verdict: The new, improved, adult contemporary look of Radiohead: wake me up when it's over

If you are a Radiohead fan and still, for some reason, have been following these reviews even after Kid A and Amnesiac, then you probably must sense that my personal beef with this band goes significantly beyond a mere issue of liking / not liking something. Whether I like it or not, Radiohead are the quintessential band that took rock music out of the 20th century and readjusted it for the 21st century — throughout the 2000s, we were living in the Radiohead age just as assuredly as we were living in it throughout the second half of the 1990s. (For all I know, we might still be living in it, because if not, I have no idea whatsoever in which age we are living in the 2010s anyway). And this, in a way, implies that whoever says «I really don't empathize with the direction that Radiohead's music took after OK Computer» is close to saying «I am not that much a fan of rock / pop / whatever music in the 21st century, period». Hyperbolic exaggeration, for sure — not to be taken at face value — but it does make a certain sense; at the very least, I certainly feel that my problems with Radiohead could be easily extrapolated on a very large number of bands and artists following in their footsteps, consciously or not.

One might, perhaps, think that at least a part of these problems would go away with the release of In Rainbows, the band's first new project after a three-year break — better known to outsiders, perhaps, as the /in/famous «self-release» adventure, when the band decided that they might be strong enough to deal the final blow to the record industry by simply offering their production directly to the fans over the Internet under a pay-what-you-want agreement. (In the process, they pissed off quite a few of their lesser peers who rightly pointed out that only a few select «titans» like Radiohead could afford this kind of marketing). The gesture caused an immense news stir, tons of discussion, generated plenty of publicity, but ultimately had the same influence as The Flaming Lipsʼ decision to change the face of music with Zaireeka — i.e., none.

However, as the dust settled, In Rainbows seems to have remained in public conscience as the best Radiohead album of the 21st century (since Kid A, technically, was still in the 20th). On the average, it got more accolades from critics and casual fans than either of its two predecessors, and typically sits higher than them on various best-of lists. The main reason for this, I think, is that In Rainbows goes much easier on the ears — it announces a return to relatively simpler and more traditional values, with a much less cluttered production, fewer weird effects, more understan­dable chord changes, all the while staying true, of course, to the familiar Radiohead spirit of beauty, moping, whining, depression, and alienation. And isn't that precisely what this reviewer has been clamoring for all this time?

In a way, yes. But what this reviewer has never been asking for is for Radiohead to begin to sound like a professionally registered «adult contemporary» outfit. Every time I come across yet another raving account of the wonderful, heart-tugging melodies at the heart of In Rainbows, I cannot help wondering how the same people would react if an album like this were released by the likes of, say, Sting (who, I insist, is perfectly capable of writing at the same level of musical intelligence — which is not necessarily an endorsement). And while this assessment, like any other, does not have the audacity to pretend to «observer-independent objectivity», one objective fact about the album is as follows: over the past decade, I have listened to it at least a couple dozen times, and the only song on it that left the vaguest, the faintest, the tiniest imprint in my brain was ʽHouse Of Cardsʼ (and see below on the odd reasons behind that).

The songs here do sound slightly more «normal» than before — if you strip them down to the bare melodies, they will be classifiable into relatively typical jazz, folk, and sometimes even good old rock (ʽJigsawʼ) patterns. Not a single one of these tracks causes acute mental irritation of the «what the heck am I listening to and why am I wasting my brain cells on this?» kind. For guitar lovers, the news is especially good, because most of the songs are guitar-driven rather than, say, Ondes Martenot-driven; and sometimes, when they had problems coming up with the best pos­sible arrangement, the final decision was to leave it simple and straightforward, as in the case of ʽVideotapeʼ, where they tried lots of stuff but ultimately left just one simple piano line and a draggy percussion sample. But «normal» is not the same as «exciting»: the whole album is so utterly lukewarm and devoid of dynamics that Kid A sounds like Motörhead in comparison.

I mean, if I want pleasant ambient sounds, I have Brian Eno. The songs on In Rainbows pretend to be songs — they have rising and falling melodies, they have verses and (sometimes) choruses, they have different types of instrumentation, but they have absolutely nothing to lock my attention. Let us just look at the singles for example, shall we? The first one was ʽJigsaw Falling Into Placeʼ, a somber rocker about the perils and consequences of poorly engineered relation­ships. It starts out promisingly, at a fast tempo and with a tightly coordinated rhythm section, but it never delivers — Thom's voice rises slightly and gets a bit angrier, some strings and falsetto harmonies join in, but the band's idea of an emotional crescendo in the context of a fast pop-rock song is either so far ahead of its time that us poor mortals cannot grasp it, or — more likely — they just haven't rocked out in such a long time that they forgot all about it. I mean, play this back to back with frickin' ʽNational Anthemʼ, and this will seem like a severe consequence of acute muscle degeneration in comparison.

ʽNudeʼ is a little better (perhaps because it was a reject from the OK Computer sessions?), but other than Thom's bitter-honey-dripping voice on the "now that you've found it" refrain, there is nothing about the song that even begins to make it feel special: four minutes of pleasantly lulling drift through the atmosphere on a space cab, driven so professionally that safely drifting off to sleep is the easiest thing to do. Compare something like ʽHigh And Dryʼ, which had the exact same ingredients of tenderness and sadness, but actually told a cleverly unfolding story as it went on. ʽNudeʼ, in comparison, is four minutes of floating jello, not even saved by the unusually loud, trip-hoppy, Portishead-ish bassline (wasted — now that I've mentioned Portishead, I feel a desperate urge to throw on ʽRoadsʼ and remind myself that this kind of music can be emotionally devastating when done right).

This was followed by ʽHouse Of Cardsʼ which, as I have already mentioned, is the only song that I have vague reminiscences of after so many listens — partially because its guitar intro announces it as some sort of Sheryl Crow-style country rocker, but the subsequent production turns it into something more like a cross between the echoey spiritualism of Peter Gabriel and the echoey romanticism of Sade. Apparently, the "denial... denial..." chorus turns out to be the single most successful hook of the album — except that, confusedly, it is the one moment on the album that sounds the most like classic adult contemporary. I like it — Greenwood's synthesizer waves, strung one upon another in the background, add a cool psychedelic texture to the suspiciously roots-rockish guitar riff. But hundreds of songs that are just as good were written and recorded in 2007; and its single companion, ʽBodysnatchersʼ, another attempt at the long-forgotten art of «rocking out», does not attenuate it positively from any chosen angle, either.

I would guess that Yorke's vocal part on ʽReckonerʼ, the last non-promotional single from the album, could be counted as his single best performance on the album — Yorke's falsetto modu­lations can melt the heart of the toughest skeptic. But what's with the music? Is that faint, barely audible folkish picking pattern supposed to be the ideal companion for the falsetto just because they match each other in softness of tone? The result is another five-minute lullaby that has no dynamics whatsoever. Deep in my mind, I can picture how the same basic melodic ideas would have been treated in the Bends era — the production would be sharper, louder, the hooks better defined, the moods more penetrating...

...anyway, you get the gist. I could make more comments like these on ʽWeird Fishesʼ or ʽVideotapeʼ or anything else here — the album features the same stultifying smoothness all over the place. There is an ideological approach that invites you to simply accept this as a given — yes, there are no sharp hooks, yes, everything is very smoothly lubricated, yes, falling asleep to this wisened-up mid-age rejection of jagged angles and unpredictable perks is officially allowed — but even from my personal mid-age wisened-up perspective, I feel like one should either go all the way and simply make records labeled as «Ambient» or «New Age» or «Post-Soft Rock», or try to at least go for a few adrenaline shots every once in a while.

Whatever bad things I may have said — perhaps undeservedly so — about Amnesiac or Hail To The Thief, at least those albums were enigmas. You could hold heated discussions about whether songs like ʽPackt Like Sardinesʼ had a right to exist, whether they had any meaning, whether one could be trained to enjoy them from a state of original total reject, etc. The difference with In Rainbows is that this is, conversely, quite a simple little record. There's no hidden magic here, no odd secrets to uncover. The fact that many people go head over heels over it is far more baffling to me than whatever people feel about Kid A; it even makes me suspect that there is such a thing, after all, as the «Radiohead magic» where, if a certain person falls under the charm of one Radio­head song, this unlocks a special corridor in the back of his mind, and then... on the other hand, the same people did hate The King Of Limbs, which, to my ears — though I am running a little ahead here — is an utterly logical continuation of the direction taken on In Rainbows. Meaning that no scientific conclusion is forthcoming here, not at the moment.

For the record, once In Rainbows was finally released on CD, there was a special limited «discbox» edition with several additional tracks from the same sessions — and, predictably, this is just 25 extra minutes of the general In Rainbows style: no alarms and no surprises. So just let me out of here. This is my final bellyache.

12 comments:

  1. Hi, George!

    I wonder in which class you would put Radiohead, judging by standards you used on your old site?

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    1. The class in which George would've put Radiohead depends largely on what rating he would've given his favourite Radiohead album. The Bends sounds as though it would've gotten a solid 13, while OK Computer - his second favourite - likely would've gotten a 12. So, we'd probably be looking at a C rating for Radiohead.

      George would've probably given all five criteria (Listenability, Resonance, Originality, Adequacy, Diversity) an average rating of 3, with maybe the odd 2 or 4 thrown in there. Emphasis on the word average, though. George believes Radiohead started out very solid in Listenability, Resonance, and Adequacy, and then gradually went downhill from there.

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  2. Blasting the album for a lack of energy and dynamics while holding up "House of Cards" as the best song baffles me.

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  3. I was waiting for you to review this album. I feel it is one of their best. There is a clip of them playing Weird Fishes on Jools Holland that is breathtaking. On In Rainbows Radiohead seem to be heading straight for the unconscious. On the other hand High and Dry to me is all surface. It has no depth. It sounds like a song you might hear in the radio in the supermarket. It is well-structured and tells a story but it doesn't engage with the unconscious yearnings, desires and wishes that human beings find very difficult to articulate ... consciously, but which dominate the dungeons of their emotional world. This is why music is so revered. It is the gateway to the unconscious. There is a purple patch on this record that starts at track 3. For the first time Radiohead sound sexy. Lots of bass and some amazing sound textures and sudden changes in mood occur in each of these songs. Weird Fishes is a prime example. Halfway through the song the drums fall away and Thom intones the song title. But the suddenly everything changes dramatically during the next section - Thom singing 'hit the bottom, escape' in a very low register. The guitars also hum and resonate in the same low frequency. The drums and bass kick back in and it builds and builds and then suddenly stops. My God, what is this? Aggressive, sexy, confident and suicidal all at the same time. Not since Nirvana has someone been able to conjure up this kind of magic. Really astounding. "No magic, no secrets'? Really? The beginning and end of the album are not up to this level but that middle stretch is some of the best music they have composed. And to me, and to many others it would seem, it seems full of magic and secrets. It demands your attention. Not for the supermarket.

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    1. No accounting for taste, but I honestly feel like we are talking about two different songs here. The word "sexy" is one that I'd never associate with Radiohead in general (to me, their music is as sex-less as it comes), let alone 'Weird Fishes'. "Aggressive", "confident", and "suicidal" are also the kind of adjectives that I'd rather reserve for "The Bends" and "OK Computer" than for anything on this record.
      If I were reading this description of the song without knowing to what song or artist it refers, I would probably think that you are referring to something like Cocteau Twins - now THERE's a gateway to the unconscious I'm always happy to march through. As for Radiohead, I'd rather have them played in supermarkets (not that there's anything wrong with that - occasionally, supermarkets have good taste in their musical selections).

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    2. I agree with you that Radiohead and sexy seems like an oxymoron but this is what they achieved on In Rainbows. It took me a while to put my finger on it. Nude and You Are All I Need reek of sex. And watch their performance of Weird Fishes at Glastonbury 2017. Look at the audience, especially a girl the camera lingers on during the 'hit the bottom, escape' section. She is certainly not admiring the intricacy of the guitar parts or any pointed political allusions. That's right, the early albums, esp OK Computer were political in many ways. Social justice paranoia and fighting against an oppressive system. In Rainbows is all about the personal. Whoever thought we would hear Thom sing "You are all I need. I'm an animal trapped in your hot car." C'mon, this couldn't be more obvious.
      And Weird Fishes is so obviously about a yearning for death as a release from suffering. A lusting after what Freud referred to as an 'oceanic feeling,' a returning to the womb. Love, sex and death are the hallmarks of all great blues songs, and this is Radiohead blues for the twenty-first century.
      I too struggled with a lot of Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. But there is more going on with In Rainbows than a return to guitars and song structure. You mention that maybe there is some secret charm and that "this unlocks a special corridor in the back of his mind." Again, I really think the popularity of this album is due to the fact that it connects to buried unconscious wishes and desires.
      And yes, there is no accounting for taste. I am always interested in your opinion and I know that you are far from being frivolous with your reviews. Even with an album such as No Jacket Required, or Blow Up Your Video, you really put in a lot of groundwork and effort. If you watch the Glastonbury performance and still feel I am barking up the wrong tree, well then, maybe I am missing the mark on this.

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  4. I don't think it's fair to poke the guys for being too arty for art's sake on previous records and then shaming them for the gone "magic" once they ditch this concept for good.

    I agree with Adrian this is as sexy as Radiohead can get because "In Rainbows" is much more focused on rhythm and groove compared to all previous records. So, yes, it's danceable on it's own terms.

    To me all the 4 albums from Kid A to this one follow the pattern of giving back more than you invest in them, which is kind of "magic" itself. I'd agree with your view upon the first listen. However during the next ones the record just grows and grows on me.

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    1. As far as I'm concerned, the "magic" was mostly gone by the time Kid A came along, and completely gone by 2001-2003. Unfortunately, once they stopped going for the magic, they'd already shot themselves in the foot too deep to go back to the hooks.

      For rhythm and groove, I'd rather take Chic. Dancing to Radiohead albums is much too weird a concept for me, even in terms of (sexless) robot dancing. Radiohead as a groove-based band? Just no.

      I wish it were just a case of giving it time. I gave it ten years, invested plenty, and came back with the same nothing. It's a good thing I don't invest all my savings in one place, or else I'd have to sue them for fraud.

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  5. If «I am not that much a fan of rock / pop / whatever music in the 21st century, period» is the logical consequence of living in the Radiohead age there fortunately still is some comfort. The debut album and EP of Alestorm is exactly what Radiohead never was: fun.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta-Z_psXODw

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  6. Well, you finally solved the yellow type on white background problem, but the green type on green background isn't so hot either...

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    1. Probably George should just use the black background. It doesn't matter the main text will become unreadable since all we care for is the verdict.

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  7. I've been reading your reviews for over a decade, and I appreciate the effort and time you have put into these reviews. I don't always agree with you on who you consider great (The Doors?), and who you give a hard time to (Zeppelin, although you seemed to have softened a bit). I feel like you always have in the back of your mind that Radiohead is very popular and gets critical praise, meaning you judge them a little harsher than you would a more "indie/underground" band.
    Obviously you have given this album a few listens and nothing I can say will change your mind, but I think Bodysnatchers, All I Need, House Of Cards, Reckoner, Weird Fishes, and Jigsaw are easily some of the best Radiohead tracks. I do love me some guitar-oriented Radiohead. I feel like all those songs either have a memorable vocal line, guitar riff/tone, or bassline that is either beautiful or just plain kicks ass. The rhythm section is on point and the production hasn't aged at all. Also, calling this album "Adult Contemporary" is a bit icky. Nobody wants to here the same arrangements on every album, and I think there is the perfect balance of slow and depressing with up-tempo rockers on here. Anyway, just stating my case for this one. Keep up the good work.

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