Radiohead’s In Rainbows

If you read any amount of art and music writing, you may feel that Western culture hovers in a state of disillusioned despair. Artists and their critics position new works against the canon tentatively, preferring to ferret meaning through pocketed, deconstructive modes of appreciation. Fresh voices are occasionally met with enthusiasm and praise, but in terms that are marked by a resignation to inferiority, and we rarely encounter artists who remain productive and progressive as they age and mature. With In Rainbows—their seventh studio album—Radiohead reminds us that hope is far from lost, delivering a mature addition to their maverick career with mischievous and spry cultural savvy.

On October 10, 2007, Radiohead—who fulfilled their recording contract with EMI in 2003 with Hail to the Thief—self-released In Rainbows through their Web site, allowing listeners to name their own price (as low as £0) and download a digital version of the album. (A collector’s disc box—also available through the band’s Web site—shipped December 3rd, while the CD will be distributed by TBD in the U.S. on January 1st.) The maneuver acknowledges the effects that Internet culture has wrought on popular conceptions of how art (especially music) should be disseminated, simultaneously circumventing the music industry and proving that many consumers remain willing to compensate artists for their products.

“15 Step” launches the album with an immediate allegiance to the computerized soundscapes and intellectualized dance frenzies of Kid A and Amnesiac, perhaps the band’s most groundbreaking previous works. Delicately distorted guitar melodies are introduced patiently, holding the askance 5/4 feel together as the composition gathers momentum, winds into a moment of frenetic tension, and exhales.

The peace is short-lived as “Bodysnatchers” roars overwhelming and blasts the arched, elemental fadeout with syncopated, solid-state guitar crunch. A four-minute burst of energy, the song is an early peak that gives way suddenly as Thom Yorke’s ghostly falsetto nurses “Nude,” the third track. The sonic leitmotifs introduced in “15 Step” reemerge and will remain present as they cycle through various rearrangements throughout the album’s course—sparse, open, and dramatic harmony hung athwart rigidly, irresistibly simplistic rhythmic structure, and a cinematically expansive aural landscape. Phil Selway’s drumming rests comfortably at the center of every arrangement, maintaining even cadences that develop with escaping, masterful subtlety.

The album explores an existential humanism that pivots around a singular, self-conscious voice, tacitly searching for tranquility and spiritual escape in a world without autonomy. When Yorke sings “Has the light gone out for you? / Cause the light’s gone out for me,” you sense remnants of the paranoia and dread that characterized OK Computer, yet here his voice offers a haunting consolation, speaking from the perspective of a dead companion who remains present and comforting, if only on videotape.

“Reckoner”—elevated from a simplistic structure by its elegantly interlocking guitar and vocal lines—leads to the deep terrain of In Rainbows‘ mystical center. As though eulogizing his entire race, Yorke intones his elusive edict with restrained confidence and simmering, refulgent strength, reassuring the listener that “You were not to blame for / Bittersweet detractors… Because we separate / It ripples our reflections.” The album is a recondite escape, and judgment been replaced by melancholic empathy.

In Rainbows is indeed Radiohead’s own reckoning, and the band meets their history with an austere presentation of what remains and what has always stood firm. To make and present art is to betray a philosophical position—while expression varies as an artist grows and his environment changes, its underpinnings rarely find great alteration. If In Rainbows stands subordinate to its predecessors, it is in the substitution of retrospection for ambition, yet Radiohead has rarified and presented their music so that it constitutes a singular statement of identity.