As I write, I’m listening to the second disc of “In Rainbows” for, I think, the third time. First impressions, then. The eight tracks shouldn’t be considered as offcuts, as inferior cousins of the songs that made it onto the first set; in fact, I’ve a hunch that some Radiohead fans might actually prefer some of the songs here.
Because there’s plenty on this bonus disc (from the beautiful box set; great heft) that fits snugly into a certain Radiohead stereotype. If “In Rainbows” proper had a new looseness, a refreshing lightness of touch underscoring Thom Yorke’s melodious worrying, many of these songs feel bleaker, more tense. The titles in themselves – “Four Minute Warning”, “Last Flowers To The Hospital”, “Down Is The New Up” – intimate a precise, classically Radiohead-esque gloom.
It begins with “Mk 1”, effectively a ghostly ambient reprise of “Videotape”, starting where the first set left off. There are three more solemn ballads roughly in that vein, though “Go Slowly” carries trace elements, I think (my knowledge of all this as a Radiohead latecomer is hazy), of “Nice Dream”. Best of this batch is “Last Flowers To The Hospital”, which starts with, Yorke opining, “Appliances have gone berserk, I cannot keep up”, resolves into a stately piano ballad, then elegantly switches melody for the last minute – the best minute, in fact, of the album.
The harder, faster tracks have affinities with the stuff we already know of the new Radiohead: “Down Is The New Up” has that vaguely soulful feel in Yorke’s vocal, and in the way some of the rhythms echo the American R&B of a few years back. Again, Phil Selway’s drums are the most striking feature, even more so on “Bangers And Mash”, which continues an idea prompted by, say, “15 Step”, that what Radiohead have mastered this time out is a sort of organic, guitar/bass/drums reconfiguration of the classic Warp electronica that so inspired them circa “Kid A”.
With “Bangers And Mash”, though, the sense is of a band clashing textures over a manic, splattery rhythm track that the Aphex Twin or Squarepusher might have conceived at their most malicious. It isn’t difficult music – far from it – but it is knotted, edgy, and it feels neurotic rather than liberated.
The disc works best as a sort of downbeat caveat to “In Rainbows”, one which possibly makes explicit the Jeremiad themes of the first set. Or maybe, thinking as I write, it’s better seen as a bridge between Radiohead’s previous albums and “In Rainbows”, a journal of a band going through some graceful, subtle transition and – though I guess most of their long-term fans would struggle to countenance such a fact – actually getting better, too.