When a band you once feared dead returns out of nowhere with one of their greatest albums, it feels a little like a resurrection. So Radiohead fans around the globe enjoyed a collective rush of euphoria in the early morning hours of Oct. 10, 2007, when the band emailed out downloads of their first album in more than four years. As In Rainbows hit the inboxes of everyone who’d pre-ordered it — for a price of the buyer’s choosing, in a somewhat revolutionary show of goodwill on Radiohead’s part — those of us who stayed up experienced the album together for the first time, chatting and texting and commenting our way through the tracklist in the middle of the night. When I first accessed the music in those pre-dawn hours upon returning from a concert out of town, I could barely believe it was actually real.
In Rainbows was a surprise in several senses, and many of them had nothing to do with the sounds contained therein. After a brief hiatus, some public struggles to find their way forward in the studio, and a blossoming of side projects that suggested the band could be kaput, the biggest surprise was that a new Radiohead album existed at all. The band also released In Rainbows without a label, announced it just 10 days before its release, and didn’t share any songs ahead of time — a brisk and minimal rollout by today’s standards and practically unheard of in the era before Beyoncé made event LPs start falling out of the sky on a regular basis. Even more radical was the pay-what-you-want scheme, which set off all kinds of debates about the viability of such a plan for smaller artists and the value of recorded music going forward.
In conjunction with the rapid release and the absence of a record-label middleman, the payment-optional approach was Radiohead’s way of both accepting and subverting the reality of album leaks, which had compromised the rollout of their previous LP. Thom Yorke and friends weren’t about to have college radio stations blasting lo-fi MP3s of their new album weeks before the release date again. By tightly controlling everything except the price point, the band seemed to be telling listeners, “OK, you can have the music for free if you wish, but you’ll have it on our terms.” Not that the band ever really risked losing money on this gambit. Hardcore fans like myself shelled out big bucks for deluxe vinyl with an entire second CD of music, a package that ensured Radiohead would still be richly rewarded for their efforts. And when the experiment ran its course and TBD Records gave In Rainbows a conventional physical release the following year, it still sold enough copies to debut at #1 in the US and UK, rendering the project a win for Radiohead on all commercial fronts.
The strategy was fascinating and worthy of examination, but it unfortunately came to overshadow the album’s creative achievements. For students of the music business and most casual observers, the mode of release is the album’s legacy. But for those of us in the cult of Radiohead, all that noise about the release apparatus has long since faded away. Instead we fondly remember In Rainbows as another batch of classics and consider how they fit within the arc of the band’s catalog, an endeavor we’ll fondly undertake throughout the rest of this retrospective.
There are days when In Rainbows feels like the best Radiohead album. It’s definitely in contention with 1995’s The Bends as the band’s most approachable, compulsively listenable release — the one you can just put on and enjoy without turning it into a full-blown immersive experience, the one that will meet you wherever you’re at and be beautiful in your presence. It absolutely holds together as a coherent statement, 10 songs inspired by related themes and woven from a shared sonic fabric. Yet you never get the sense you’re beholding some epic musical journey á la OK Computer or Kid A, the other albums I’m most likely to name as Radiohead’s crowning achievement. And although it’s subdued and reflective enough that no one would confuse it for a Nuggets comp, more than any other Radiohead album this century, it comes across as the work of a rock band — even, at times, a rock band having fun.
That In Rainbows sounded this way was nearly as unexpected as its method of release. Here was their poppiest, most guitar-based collection of songs in more than a decade, a pronounced swerve away from the chilly electronics and crushing paranoia that had been a hallmark of their sound since OK Computer and swallowed it up completely on Kid A and Amnesiac. In hindsight, the group had already edged back toward guitars on 2003 career overture Hail To The Thief, an album that begins with the hard-rocking “2+2=5″ and includes the soaring career highlight “There There” among other six-string excursions. But those were part of a wide-ranging patchwork, whereas this album largely nudged electronics into the background in favor of an upbeat, organic sound, frequently accented by Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements but firmly grounded in the sound of a guitar-driven rock combo.
More profound than their choice of instruments, though, was the way the band seemed to shake off the global-scale despair and horror that had become their calling card, trading them for a look at the battle between hope and pessimism in Yorke’s own personal life. In Rainbows presented Radiohead with an unprecedented warmth as it found their singer exploring a more mature version of the sad sack from “Creep.” There are bittersweet tracks, like the fatalistic torch song “Nude” and the brisk yet self-loathing schoolyard chant “15 Step” and the clattering power ballad “Reckoner,” a treatise on facing down death. And there are angry tracks, like the powerhouse rock rave-up “Bodysnatchers” and the acoustic-orchestral pocket suite “Faust Arp.” No song ever fully gives into its darker impulses, though. The feeling when the band queues up “15 Step” or rips into “Bodysnatchers” in concert is pure visceral elation, and the lingering memory of “Nude” and “Faust Arp” and especially “Reckoner” is not ache so much as aching beauty.
And then there are the love songs. Most of my favorite tracks on In Rainbows are the ones on which Yorke risks an emotional wipeout by giving himself over to entirely to breathless affection, songs that revel in real or imagined romantic bliss even as they acknowledge life’s bitter realities. “Weird Fishes (Arpeggi)” gorgeously captures the feeling of being possessed by attraction only to be left unsatisfied yet again, its plaintive guitar needlework building to a transcendent climax then careening off a cliff and into the depths. The darkly swooning “All I Need” traces similar paths; as Yorke professes his unrequited desire for a woman who seems to be missing him in plain sight, the song’s remarkably straightforward structure culminates in an overwhelming wave of melancholy.
“House Of Cards,” Radiohead’s idea of a sexy slow jam, is probably the tenderest song in Yorke’s catalog. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” details the flickering passion of a barroom flirtation against a locomotive backbeat that very much recalls a bar band. And as In Rainbows draws to a close, the deconstructed piano ballad “Videotape” returns to the themes of fleeting ecstasy and creeping death. The lyrics are basically Yorke putting a morbid twist on Lou Reed, realizing this “perfect day” with a friend or lover will be part of the highlights montage when his life flashes before his eyes.
Many of us have had a similar epiphany while listening to In Rainbows. One last surprise to consider is how well this album holds up 10 years later. It felt like a private gift at first, overflowing with delights but too minor in scale and conservative in style to qualify as the latest Radiohead masterpiece. Yet I return to it more than any other Radiohead album, and its tracklist is as stunning front to back as any of the group’s other elite LPs. For many people a few years younger than me, it’s the first Radiohead album they ever loved. For me and countless others, it was an affirmation that our favorite band in the world was not just operational but still capable of kicking out vital, exhilarating music. A decade down the line, with two more albums in the rearview, it’s becoming increasingly clear that In Rainbows deserves to be in the conversation when discussing Radiohead’s finest work. Revisit it today; it just might surprise you all over again.