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How much did you pay for In Rainbows? Between the sudden announcement, worldwide release and consumption of Radiohead’s seventh album, that was all anybody could latch onto. Ten years ago this week, one of the seminal bands of our era upturned expectations and established the event album in turn.
The ‘honesty box’ scheme is still probably the most impactful thing about In Rainbows, which highlights how uncomfortably the album sits in the band’s canon. It could easily be argued as their best effort, but it marks the end of an combative era of relentless, fidgeting innovation and the commencement of a more relaxed middle age.
It’s a wonderful album, brimming with moments of surprising irreverence and hushed majesty, but In Rainbows doesn’t define Radiohead in the same way as the flat-pack anxiety anthems of OK Computer or Kid A’s ersatz beauty and wilful antagonism. It’s simply allowed to be — unburdened by the same weight of cultural memory, undisturbed by an ill-fitting narrative.
The opening track of a Radiohead album tends to let you know what’s in store: ‘Airbag’ is eerie, guitar-heavy and set at the alienating intersection of humanity and technology; ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ is deceptively quiet, experimental but ultimately propulsive; ‘2+2=5’ is a back-to-basics rock song that foregrounds paranoia and political anger.
‘15 Step’, which kicks In Rainbows off in unexpectedly joyous fashion, doesn’t tie the album together in the same way. It’s all skittish claps, swooning guitars and children’s cheers, where much of what follows is intimate and introspective.
It still sounds as fresh and beguiling as it did in 2007 and when it was so memorably re-staged with the backing of the USC marching band at the 2009 Grammy Awards. It’s a barnstorming opener, and ‘Bodysnatchers’, with its sinewy riffs and Thom Yorke’s grasping yelps, lands the one-two punch in style.
At the tail end of the album, ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’ contemplate relationships at both ends — the quiet desperation of a swinger’s party bleeding into the rush of ravenous nights out — in wildly different styles. ‘House of Cards’, which has video made without cameras, is sparing and sensual, lathered in Yorke’s ghostly coos, much more relaxed that the ramshackle, acoustic ‘Jigsaw’, which rumbles forward with giddy, lustful anticipation.
The year after In Rainbows came out, EMI, Radiohead’s previous record label, took the decision to release a Best of album, much to the band’s disgust. It was a cynical exercise that allowed them to wring a few more quid out of one of their most popular former acts, but it it’s difficult to imagine any version of that album being approved by Radiohead — retrospection was anathema at that time. Since then though, they’ve released ‘True Love Waits’ and repackaged OK Computer with great care and to much fanfare.
The decision to include ‘Nude’ on this album, after ten years gathering dust (and mystique), proved inspired and marks the point at which Radiohead started becoming more comfortable looking back on their legacy. In its official form, it’s just agonisingly beautifully. Yorke’s nasal vocal, by turns dejected, sinister and angelic, is consoled only by the Greenwood brothers’ bubbling bass and rusted guitar, but as the the song ascends to its finale it sheds its skin to reveal its celestial glory.
Apart from the eminently skippable ‘Faust Arp’, In Rainbows’ remaining five tracks are all masterpieces that have aged superbly, revealing further layers without having their impact dulled. It’s just an album stacked with moments that will never leave you:
On first listen, ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ left a lot to be desired. It sounded quite pedestrian to my ears, but it builds to a glittering crescendo of overlapping guitars that can only be described as overwhelming. I remember seeing it performed at Reading in 2009 and just hearing Ed O’Brien shout wordlessly into the void gave me chills.
‘All I Need’ has that threatening two-note bassline stalking the listener. It sounds as threatening as ‘Like Spinning Plates’ or ‘There, There’ but relents slightly when a wistful xylophone comes in. Static fades in and out adding to the menace, but then Yorke starts hammering away at the piano and the song keeps opening up until it’s all a gorgeous, warm blur.
Jonny Greenwood is on tremendous form on this album. I can only imagine his move into film score composition reignited his love for the guitar because his the arrangements are complex but never too dense and dovetail wonderfully with O’Brien and Yorke’s parts.
‘Reckoner’ is another slow-build, and Greenwood is largely in the shadow behind Phil Selway’s unmistakable percussion and Yorke’s meandering falsetto, but he’s always there in consolation. His gentle strumming combines with strings to push Yorke’s voice to that heavenly plane it reaches at the end — it’s likely the album’s true centrepiece, but who can really say?
To me the defining image from the In Rainbows era is Thom Yorke, eye-closed, performing ‘Videotape’ for producer Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement series. He has that thicket of spiky, brown hair and the heavily side-parted fringe, and he’s dressed as if he wants to camouflage himself against the studios dim, muted tones.
He looks scruffy, low-key, and it’s a scruffy, low-key song – just Yorke at the piano, repeating that four-note refrain, sorting through cherished memories. On an album that alternates between arresting simplicity and staggering intricacy, it maybe the most disarming track.
OK Computer’s 20th anniversary earlier this year turned into a carnival of rhapsodic think-pieces and podcasts, but that was an album being spoken about in an aggrandising tense since its release.
In Rainbows won’t get the same treatment, and it doesn’t invite the same treatment. It’s doesn’t diagnose society or make a zeitgeist statement; in fact, it looks inwards. It’s the sounds of a band at their peak, reconciling with themselves and continuing on regardless.