In Rainbows

In Rainbows

For those who grew up during the streaming era, it may be impossible to grasp just how monumental the announcement of Radiohead’s seventh album, In Rainbows, seemed in 2007. But in early October, guitarist Jonny Greenwood logged onto the band’s blog to announce that not only was the group’s long-awaited new record finished, but that it would be available online in 10 days—and that fans could pay whatever they wanted for the files (including, well, nothing). Debates have raged about the consequences of Radiohead’s decision ever since, but it was a bold response to the onslaught of digital piracy. Radiohead had fulfilled its contract with EMI, becoming one of the world’s biggest rock bands in the world. What did the band members have to lose by seeing how much listeners actually valued their music? Though that decision dominated headlines, In Rainbows presented another bit of unexpected upheaval in Radiohead’s world: After years of in-studio sonic experimentation, the group had come back to earth, making a 10-song, 42-minute record with actual, you know, singles. And guitars. And lyrics about loneliness and love and yearning. This was Radiohead reverting to its past—slightly. Sure, you could hear the experimental vapors of Kid A in the tessellated textures of “Reckoner” and the skitters of “15 Step.” And you could sense the luminous aggression of Hail to the Thief in the caterwauls of “Bodysnatchers.” But then there was the gorgeous-if-fretful “Nude,” a song Radiohead had been trying to get right for a decade: With its preening new bassline, it became their first US Top 40 hit since “Creep.” And on “House of Cards,” a song unabashedly about sex and all the places it could lead, the bandmates sound like a dubplate version of their former rock band selves, all lust-drunk and wobbling. Radiohead may have seemed newly at ease on In Rainbows, but making the record nearly broke the band. For the first time since OK Computer, the group members tried working with a producer other than Nigel Godrich—only to abandon the attempt, and instead take some tunes on the road. They eventually reunited with Godrich, who forced the bandmates—some of whom were new fathers—to focus on music, sequestering them in a broken-down country palace, and making them sort through all their fragments and false starts. The effort yielded some of Radiohead’s most memorable songs, as though time and touring had taught the group to find this material’s essence. The impossible guitar tangle of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” finds a climax worthy of the best post-rock bands, as does the brief acoustic phantom, “Faust Arp.” Most stunning, though, might be the album’s finale, “Videotape.” Equal parts love note and goodbye letter, “Videotape” first arrived as a maximalist rush onstage at the Hammersmith Ballroom in 2006. But the band members kept peeling back layers and dropping parts in the studio, until all that remained were skeletal piano and rhythms that cracked apart and eventually floated skyward—as though Radiohead was drifting off into the void.

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