In Rainbows is Radiohead’s seventh album, released in 2007. It comes from a band with a long history of taking chances and experimenting with their sound, never releasing something that sounded like a clone of their last album. And true to fashion, In Rainbows sounds like nothing they’d done before – and like everything – all at once.
Radiohead consists of five members, Thom Yorke (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Jonny Greenwood (guitar, Ondes Martenot, effects), Colin Greenwood (bass guitar), Ed O’Brien (rhythm guitar/effects), and Phil Selway (drums). Most people know the band for their biggest hit, “Creep”, and brush them off as just another alternative rock band from the 1990s. However, beyond that, they developed into a band with a penchant for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from a rock band, and that sense of daring is probably the biggest reason why I enjoy their music so much.
In their previous work, they morphed from a British alternative rock band, into something resembling the offspring of Pink Floyd and Aphex Twin – expansive textures and paranoid, insular electronica. Before the release of In Rainbows, they had largely eschewed the melodic quality of their earlier work, which alienated the band to a lot of casual listeners. But with this album, they managed to make something that blended both that strong melodic sense, and the lush textures that they had become more known for. The first song on the album, “15 Step”, is a good example of this – it starts off with a looped electronic drumbeat (that’s strikingly danceable), before Yorke’s high, melodic vocal line comes in. From there, a clean, jazzy guitar line enters, adding texture, but still leaving more than enough space for the bass guitar and vocals to breathe and mingle.
Texture and space are in fact the two biggest keys to the album’s sound. After the short, uncharacteristic burst of fuzz-guitar rock on “Bodysnatchers”, the album quiets down into songs like “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which bring in slower tempos, plaintive melodies and lyrics, orchestration, and warm, rich instrumentation. The songs ebb and flow with keyboards and strings, groovy bass lines, and well-placed guitar work that neither dominate the songs, nor sink into the background. Right when you think “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is about to explode into climax, everything but Yorke’s vocals fall away, and when “Jigsaw Falling into Place” starts off with a quiet acoustic guitar intro, it’s the one that launches into a powerful and cathartic resolution halfway through.
Another facet of this album is how subtlety complex it is. At first listen, the songs sound fairly simple, but on repeated listens (and a good pair of headphones), it reveals more and more layers of sound. Keyboards, guitars, xylophones, drum machines, and reverb build to create a full range of sounds, and makes it a rewarding album to dig into time after time. Radiohead also sounds like they have embraced jazz more than on any other album, with the song “House of Cards” being the most prominent example of this. The guitar comps a jazzy chord progression along to Selway’s restrained time-keeping, which also adds a sparse, relaxing atmosphere to the song.
The title “In Rainbows” is more than perfect for this album – it has more vibrancy and color than any other album in their catalog. It doesn’t follow the normal Radiohead format of veering away from the expected on each album, but still manages to be surprising. They managed to combine the cold, computer-generated effects of their albums Kid A and Amnesiac, with a more natural, human element, and a sense of melody that they’d hidden away for nearly a decade. Even though this review sounds cold and professional, everything I have talked about here contributes to why I love this album so much – as much as I enjoy their more electronic, expansive songs, I am a sucker for the melodic, human feeling that their first three albums had. All of the different layers intrigue me as a musician, because they work together in ways that are subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible, but in a way that if they were not there, you would definitely notice. And unlike some of their moodier work, In Rainbows isn’t as emotionally draining to listen to, compared to Kid A or Hail to the Thief. It’s a much easier record to reach for anytime, and still get something that sounds like Radiohead. All in all, In Rainbows is a feat – ten years after their most critically acclaimed album, long past the prime of many other bands, they pulled out an album that stands alongside their best work, and in the light of The King of Limbs, is a like a send off to what Radiohead was, letting them adventure off into more obscure formats and sounds.