Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is Radiohead's 'In Rainbows'.
There was plenty about Radiohead’s seventh album ‘In Rainbows’ (2007) that was revolutionary. It just has nothing to do with the music but rather how people were getting the music.
2003 saw the release of ‘Hail to the Thief’ and the completion of Britain’s most revered quintet Radiohead’s contractual obligations with their then label, EMI, sparking a bidding war for the popular music world’s hottest free agents. Rather than accept any of the multitude of lucrative offers, upon completion of the tour, the band went on hiatus with singer and songwriter Thom Yorke working on his debut solo album ‘The Eraser’ and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood contributing to the original scores for the movies Bodysong and There Will Be Blood.
Radiohead would eventually regroup in early 2005 to start proceedings on a follow-up, electing not to work with long-time collaborator Nigel Godrich to avoid re-treading familiar waters. The sessions would prove difficult as the band struggled to regain confidence in their songs to the point that they had considered splitting up. An attempt to collaborate with Spike Stent, notable for his previous work with U2 and Bjork, would be equally unsuccessful. The re-enlisting of Godrich would provide the spark needed to complete the album.
On 1 October 2007, Jonny Greenwood would post a link on Dead Air Space, Radiohead’s blog, a link to a website where visitors could pay what they wanted for an MP3 version of the album; effectively releasing, promoting and selling the album without a record label or without the risk of the material being leaked. The move was savvy, and made headlines worldwide, sparking debate about the implications for the music industry.
The group were praised for the price model by many, seeing it as a brilliant means of cutting out industry middle men. There was also criticism; some saying the experiment didn’t go far enough, others saying that it devalued music and that only a band of Radiohead’s stature could have afforded such a business model – one the band have not repeated.
However, to attribute an album’s modern classic status to its pricing and distribution model would be folly. ‘In Rainbows’ musically is of its own merit.
Though a fine album in its own right, ‘Hail to the Thief’ was an album that the band would come to express regret over. At 14 tracks in 56 minutes, it was the band’s longest album. Members Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood opined that this was to the album’s detriment and that some of the songs were unfinished in an interview with Mojo magazine in 2008.
Godrich told the NME that “there’s some great moments on there – just too many songs”, while Yorke lamented the album’s sequencing and cohesion in an interview with Uncut in 2006 “I think we had a meltdown when we put it together… We wanted to do things quickly, and I think the songs suffered”. As a result, the band consciously cut the track listing on ‘In Rainbows’ to 10 songs.
Sonically, too, ‘In Rainbows’ seemed to be an effort to right the wrongs of its predecessor. Having spent much of the early 21st century wandering around in the digital hinterlands, Radiohead picked up their guitars again and in ‘Hail to the Thief’ attempted to record an album that showcased everything they’d learned in their 20 years of recording and touring. On ‘In Rainbows’, this was perfected. Arguably the band’s most accessible work, the songs are minimal, organic and a perfect marriage of their art rock leanings and avant-garde, electronically driven experiments.
Eschewing the social and political commentary of ‘Hail to the Thief’, ‘In Rainbows’ saw Radiohead produce a genre spanning collection of songs that reached from straightforward rockers (Bodysnatchers) to stark piano ballads (Videotape). While the tragic lyrics of isolation and post-9/11, digital-age paranoia are present, so too are songs of love and seduction (Nude, House Of Cards). It is Yorke’s most human performance, both lyrically and vocally.
15 Step opens the album; its skittering cut-paste-and-loop drum patterns overlaid with breezy guitar licks and a walking bassline. With Yorke’s impressionistic, almost ad-libbed lyrics and coolly detached vocal delivery, it is the album’s closest resemblance to the electronic dalliances of the ‘Kid A/Amnesiac’ era, at times even sounding like an easy listening/jazz take on ‘OK Computer’ opener Airbag.
This gives way to Bodysnatchers which is a showcase of Radiohead’s complete abandon of verse/chorus/verse song structure in favour of gradual build, catch and release and abrupt left-turns. A tri-guitar onslaught built around a core, deliciously sludgy riff drives the song, with some odd, UFO like sound effects laid over the top.
Nude sees the band put to bed a song that has been offered up at tour dates for years, Yorke crooning sweetly over one of Greenwood’s more sensual riffs; offering almost inappropriate acerbic wit to a tale of confronting one’s own self-doubt and inadequacy (“Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not gonna happen […] you’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”, anyone?).
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is a twisting, turning exercise in arpeggio and crescendo and seems almost effortless. All I Need closes out the album’s first half with a deceptively skeletal rhythm section which gives way to a crescendo of piano, glockenspiel, strings and white noise.
Faust Arp picks up where All I Need leaves off with Yorke’s double-tracked sprechgesang weaving in and out of Greenwoods deft, Nick Drake-esque fingerpicking. In keeping with the album’s minimalism, the track adds only a fleeting flourish of strings dotted here and there throughout; while the breathtakingly pretty Reckoner takes Yorke’s falsetto on a walk with a meandering guitar line and clanging, icy percussion. Its place in the album would lead a listener believe that the track is to serve as a sort of centrepiece – it feels like everything was building up to this point.
Though the following track House of Cards is easily the album’s weakest track, it serves a purpose – its lazy, washed out guitar strokes and laid back rhythm section provide a lighter moment amongst all of the tension, and it gives way perfectly to Jigsaw Falling Into Place, the album’s most deceptively intricate and tense track, with its spidery acoustic pickings and jumpy basslines.
Videotape then serves as the emotional comedown. Though Yorke could never be accused of being the most technically proficient pianist in popular music, his ear for simplistic, effective chord progression is simply heart-wrenching.
If you are looking for the quintessence of Radiohead, look no further than In Rainbows. What you get with In Rainbows is a record made by a band that is flexing its creative muscles, free of the shackles of the music industry and at the top of its song-writing ability.
The original 'In Rainbows' box set also came with a second disk of songs from the recording sessions including Bangers + Mash and Four Minute Warning.