Wild Mercury Sound
Radiohead's "In Rainbows"
Up at six this morning, as usual, though the Radiohead album didn't arrive to download until, I think, about ten to seven. I played "In Rainbows" for the first time on the bus coming in to the office, and it was one of those records that seems dramatically suited to sitting in traffic on the A10, watching the commuters. Oh, the alienation!
Funny, then, that I found this quote by Thom Yorke about the album: "It's about that anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic, thinking, 'I'm sure I'm supposed to be doing something else'."
I'm not sure the fear hit me, exactly, but I get the gist. I should make clear at this point that I'm not historically a big fan of the band, never really enjoying much of the first few albums. Since "Kid A", though - since they started actively drawing on a lot of records I like, frankly - I've liked them more and more, especially "Kid A" itself, large portions of "Hail To The Thief" and Thom Yorke's solo album.
Still, I can't pretend I'm an expert here, so forgive the vagueness and inaccuracies about some of this. "In Rainbows", as you're probably aware yourself by now, is a more stripped-down record (record? There's an error from me for a start) than some of its predecessors. Yorke's voice still has plenty of reverb on it at times, but there's generally less of what Stephen Malkmus once described to me as the "Nigel Godrich swoosh", less of a general blurry ambience.
The instruments sound clearer and more definable, from Jonny Greenwood's lovely guitar playing (seemingly through a distorted practice amp on "Bodysnatchers") to the nimble breaks that Phil Selway plays frequently.
It begins with a red herring, of sorts. "15 Steps" starts with a programmed beat that recalls Radiohead's dystopian comrades on the dubstep scene, like Burial. But soon the band creep in, and the song takes a jazzy, urgent new direction. It feels like a conscious band set, actually. There’s not much electronica here, more a sense of men playing in a room – unlike “The Eraser”, of course. The outstanding “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi” is a wonderful atmospheric piece with Greenwood recalling Robin Guthrie, I think, and seeming to layer his riffs with a sample delay pedal. It’s simple, but expansive.
I suppose the consequence of less electronica is that plenty of people who’ve been appalled by Radiohead’s post-“OK Computer” experiments will be claiming this as a return to rock orthodoxy, which isn’t really the case. “Bodysnatchers” is certainly a rock song – someone here has just suggested the cranking riff echoes George Harrison circa “Revolver” – but it’s still a peculiar, awkward, mildly deranged piece of music, and all the better for it, obviously.
The dominant mode is balladry, with tricksy rhythms; “House Of Cards” and “Nude”, I imagine, will be ones that people gravitate to, immediate but still endearingly off-kilter. “Faust Arp” promises a Krautrock meltdown by its title, but cunningly turns out to be a discreetly lush piece in thrall to Nick Drake, especially the “River Man”/Robert Kirby-style string flurries.
I still find some of the lyrics a bit alienation-by-numbers, all the “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car” business and various doomy references to the “21st Century”. There are, too, a couple of stumbling blocks that I’ve come across on previous Radiohead albums: an occasional vocal melody that continues to remind me of U2; and Thom Yorke’s voice. I have no critical grounds to dislike Yorke’s singing – in fact, plenty of singers I like – Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and so on – occupy a pretty similar tonal space. But I find that the hardest part of being a music critic is articulating why you don’t get on with a specific voice; often it’s just a gut reaction that defies logic. This is a band whose later work I should unequivocally love, it strikes me, and I guess dealing with Yorke’s sighs – technically exquisite, to be sure – remains something of a hurdle.
But then I’m playing “In Rainbows” now for the fourth time, I think, and I’m feeling faintly guilty that I haven’t listened to its predecessors so assiduously. It really is time I caught up. My colleague John Robinson just astutely suggested that the band are almost running their career like REM in reverse, becoming more silvery and mysterious as they get older, and I definitely warm to that. I love, too, the idea of Radiohead now: as a viral presence in the mainstream, as a device to bring leftfield musical ideas, conscientious political thought, an intelligence, dignity and personal discretion at odds with corny rock tradition to a mass audience.
And I love how I received this music at exactly the same time as you. It played havoc with Uncut’s production schedules, but as a radical – and extremely commercially clever – manoeuvre I have nothing but admiration. Today feels like an event, Radiohead Day. And there’s the tantalising prospect of another albumful of songs from these sessions next month, when the discbox arrives. I can’t wait.