Sunday, January 20, 2008

Radiohead | In Rainbows

It’s hard being the greatest band in the land. Haters of rock journalism enjoy indicating the critics’ penchant to pour praise on Radiohead for anything they do. But if anybody salivates at the idea of a new Radiohead record more than the critics, it’s the fans. But are the universal excitement, hype, and praise deserved? Are they really that good? Well, yes.

In a move that sent all major record companies to primal scream therapy, Radiohead originally released their seventh studio album
In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-will basis on their website. The reason why Radiohead can get away with something like this is because of the unanimous critical and fan fervor. Plus, the record doesn’t suck. For a band obsessed with dehumanized tech sounds that symbolize in ambience and mood the usurpation of the soul by HAL 9000, they made In Rainbows remarkably warm. Its warmth is typical of R&B: melodic rhythmic constructions, lyrical meditations on love, and all possible configurations of groove.

“All I Need” rides a simple bass and drum pattern that if sped up could be a Kanye West sample. For all of Thom Yorke’s directness (“I am an animal trapped in your hot car”), the yearning chorus ends with unease: “You are all I need/Lying in the reeds.” When drummer Phil Selway moves to the crash cymbal, the drifting keys and guitars boil the glockenspiel to harmonize with the bassline, and Yorke sings “S’all wrong/s’alright” interchangeably. The tension the band created for the duration of the song exploded in an escalation to despair.

Where other tunes, such as “House of Cards” (“I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover” take that,
Prince!) also have R&B leanings, lyrically, the album delves into postmillenium dread – something Radiohead know a lot about. Most of this sentiment is communicated through Yorke’s repetition of short phrases or words, such as “Off again, on again,” “I seen it coming,” “I’m a lie,” “Denial,” and many others. Yorke also does this in previous albums, notably Hail to the Thief. It reminds me of John Coltrane practicing scales over and over, searching for new meaning in the same sounds.

The album ends dourly with “Videotape,” whose narrator is content with dying as long as his YouTube suicide note is captured for posterity. Just like Radiohead to be downers. Just like Radiohead to be the best.
(Photo credit: Lee Jenkins)

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