I've decided that it's preferable to review an album after I've understood exactly how I feel about it. I say this because after my first listen of this album, on the night of January 5th (I waited to buy the album in-store), I hated it. A couple friends of mine (who'd downloaded it) had told me that it felt more like background music than anything substantial and worthy of attentive listening or excitement. I treated it as such on a drive home, listening to it straight through and never getting into it. I realize now, after listening to it more than anything else since, that this is because it wasn't what I expected at all. I suppose I expected something groundbreaking--something like I'd never heard before, since this has always been Radiohead's method. This album may not be groundbreaking in its other-worldly creativity and electronic sampling, but may be in its cohesiveness and as an exceptionally well-crafted album.
Radiohead's seventh studio album is simultaneously similar to, and very different from their previous six. This album is undeniably Radiohead, but Radiohead at a very different place musically. It's being hailed as "the best Radiohead album since Kid A," and I agree. As for the band's discography, I've always felt that their albums contain both the spectacular and the mediocre, although some obviously with more of the great than others (i.e. OK Computer and The Bends over Pablo Honey and the last two albums). Kid A was the first Radiohead album that sounded perfect in its entirety: every song flowed into the next, and the whole album felt like a wonderfully preserved memory that evoked a strong set of feelings each time. I couldn't help but crave and listen to the entire album straight through every time.
In Rainbows achieves the same synergy. That may be a reason why it is relatively easy to gloss over: it doesn't have the stark contrasts between radically different tracks, and each track sounds like it was meant to follow the one that preceded it. That being said, this album must be listened to: track by track; then you'll hear it come together. Overall, this album is much more band-centered. The musical arrangements focus much less on electronics and much more on the traditional guitars, percussion, and bass. Radiohead thus achieves an "uncomplicated beauty"* on this album that really is quite striking.
What follows are my notes on this album, written about a month or so after listening to this album constantly. I was going to clean them up, but upon reading them just now, I like them the way they are; if you want to know my analysis of and thoughts on each song, take a look:
(1) 15 Step - builds...has so much energy...the low-key guitar in the background really drives the song...the bridge from 1:46-1:58 and 2:24-2:40 and the new backing sound is my favorite...with perfectly placed what-seems-like-children-celebrating...the percussion is what shines most brightly in this song, undoubtedly. being the first impression of their new album, one immediately realizes that this is more band-constructed/centered music than electronic-constructed/centered music. (this holds true throughout the album, for the most part) when it's over you're left wondering, where could this album possibly go from here?...lyric: 15 steps, then a sheer drop. tonight this song made me think of death. . .
(2) Bodysnatchers - harsher, distorted guitar, relatively basic everything (vocals, percussion)..."I've no idea what I am talking about / I'm trapped in this body and can't get out" - they do an excellent job of making you feel like you're trapped in a cage that's being shaken and yelled at by others... "has the light gone out for you? / because the light's gone out for me. / it is the 21st century..." - from 2:07 to 3:10, he takes a step back from the chaos and sees what's really happened to him; this section is what makes this song worth listening to for me. beginning of song pretty cacophonous, but 2:07 to 2:54 is a characteristically ethereal radiohead transition......you definitely (I, at least) have to be in the right mood for this song.
(3) Nude - an older song, unreleased since its conception in the ok computer era; very beautiful: slow, minimalistic, really achieved by yorke's high croon (not like the deeper mellow of Motion Picture Soundtrack, e.g.) the soft, smooth guitar line throughout is really cool. 2:45 to 3:10 is yorke at his best, a transcending solo - in which his most contemptible, or rather, most observant lyric invests all its emotional impact ("you'll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking"); "don't get any big ideas / they're not gonna happen." opening lines. gee, thanks guys....but you realize later that it's not a statement of fact, it's a 'motivating suggestion'....allegedly about living in a man's world, the lyrics seem to paint the picture of sexual desire and desistance, and the guilt and inadequacy that can inevitably follow. "Nude" not only physically but emotionally and spiritually/mentally as well.
(4) Weird Fishes/Arpeggi - very positive-feeling song. flowing, swirling music that acquires layers gradually throughout the entire song : percussion, bass, guitar, more guitar, vocals (with enough echo to create space) - one doesn't have a difficult time believing he's at the bottom of the sea on this one - "i'd be crazy not to follow / follow where you lead / your eyes / they turn me"..."turn me on to phantoms / i'll follow to the edge of the earth" -there is a turn in the song here. builds to its height (most layered, most moving) from 2:26 to 3:03...(rest of lyrics are pretty damn good...leaves if they get the chance, this is my chance)...down to the keyboards and guitar accompaniment, yorke alone until 3:41, when we're moving again, but in a much different direction: an almost foreboding backing vocal, dissonance created between the guitars and orchestra now, as yorke sings "i'll hit the bottom / hit the bottom and escape / escape" we realize his weariness and also a sense of finality; . . . it's as if we're sinking the whole time...following at first, taking in the weird fishes we pass on the way, and finally, the end, escaping?...
(5) All I Need - i feel like this is so obviously a favorite song candidate, because it kinda has the 'perfect song' formula. but they've pulled it off. similar to and strangely unlike anything they've ever done in its entirety. reading the lyrics without listening to the song seems so...blatantly...conforming...analogies that express one's dependence on another, while including a piece of imagery that connects the two vividly... but it's the way he sings, and most importantly, the music that creates one of the great moments i've heard in music this year. (many comparisons to Boards of Canada's "Roygbiv," and although there must be an influence, this song kills roygbiv.) the addition of the xylophone and the static is a precursor to the noise that explodes... but on the base level the song remains simple throughout. it's 2:45 to the end (esp. 3:01) that this song takes over your world; yorke, among the noise, sings through, you can feel the effort..."dressing up what begins as a skeletal rhythm section in cavernous swaths of glockenspiel, synths, pianos, and white noise."*
-two sides-i really wish i had this on vinyl, because after All I Need i feel like the next song comes much too quickly. i usually turn my cd player off for a few minutes, because i feel like i need time to bask in what i've just heard, or at least come down.
(6) Faust Arp - therefore feels like a bridge that connects the two sides of the album, although the sides are not equal other than that, not a very substantial track on its own. the orchestral arrangement is very nice, as is near the end when yorke actually starts singing.
(7) Reckoner - very satisfyingly complex beat to this one, which is amplified by the introduction of the bass at 1:28 and yorke's "you are not to blame for..." the first real change at 2:23 (the music stops...and slowly builds, amid repetitions of "because we seperate like / ripples on a blank shore" into a sweeping full-bodied orchestral backing. and back to the original movement/riff at 3:18. . .which now becomes accompanied by the orchestra, until a slow fade-out. overall, something very emotional in the lyrics that yorke sings in this one...
(8) House of Cards - starts out very simple, very feel-the-beat. This was the first song to stand out for me, because of the opening lyrics: "I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover" (Yes! Thank you!) Yorke's voice is nicely echoed, over a pretty minimal guitar pick and ride&rim shot, but the choruses conjure up a set of really cool effects that provide a lot of depth and weight to his "denial, denial" lamentations.
(9) Jigsaw Falling into Place - this song is awesome. it moves so well. the only narrative on the album, in a way. quick guitar riff opens, to a driving force of a beat. yorke intros some backing vocals which repeat, and then the story begins (of course, his lower speaking-like voice) "dance, dance, dance," change at 2:53--lighter guitars....about being in a danceclub at night, meeting someone, and the excitement and euphoria that can be felt losing oneself in the music and the dancing...the chance encounters that happen seem to be jigsaws falling into place...
(10) Videotape - videotape has been a disappointment to many, myself included, since It doesn't really go anywhere; the 4-note piano measure repeats the same throughout the entire song, which is somewhat relaxing in its wind-down but ultimately uninteresting. but truthfully it's a pretty perfect end to this album. it's very clear from its beginning that it's the last song of the album and it would never work any other way; the lyrics are actually pretty profound, although the repetition of the word "videotape" gets a little annoying. it winds down, reminiscent of Motion Picture Soundtrack... but it doesn't take that long, and there's no mind-blowing hidden track; it's pretty deliberate, like they hold no illusions about how straightforward this album is. in so doing, they've basically created the requirement that you start listening to the album again.