Thursday, October 11, 2007

Full Spectrum

Radiohead - In Rainbows

So, is it actually any good then? This being Radiohead of course, there are some fairly characteristic and dependable features of ‘In Rainbows’. Like its immediate predecessors, it merges the band’s preoccupations with conventional rock, glitchy electronica, jazz and contemporary composition, but on this occasion perhaps with a greater emphasis on rock instrumentation. Drums and guitars feature prominently, but rarely in a straightforward way. In essence then, ‘In Rainbows’ traverses fairly similar terrain to that already charted by ‘Hail To The Thief’, providing evolution in the band’s approach and processes, and providing an intelligent amalgamation of many of their creative ideas. Whilst it’s arguable that the group are no longer making great strides during the gestation periods between albums, they’ve certainly now found a happy hybrid sound that defies restrictive classification.

Whilst, controversially it would appear, I still rate ‘Hail…’ very highly – it’s at least the Radiohead album I most enjoy - ‘In Rainbows’ does reveal it as a little unfocussed and scattershot. The most impressive aspect of this very accomplished record is the band’s focus on specific techniques and styles of arrangements. A number of the tracks seem to have been built up from Phil Selway’s spidery, chattering drum loops and there’s also a clear emphasis on low rumbling bass lines and delicately plucked, often arpeggiated guitar parts. Selway also frequently leads the dynamic swells, moving away from a looped rhythm into bolder, swashbuckling cymbal work. If they haven’t made overt sonic progress since ‘Hail To The Thief’, it’s worth remembering exactly how far they have come since ‘Pablo Honey’. That album now sounds not just dull, but also rather quaint when placed next to the palpable futurism of ‘In Rainbows’.

‘In Rainbows’ is also the Radiohead album with the most intelligent use of space. The silences are as significant as the more familiar crescendos, and whilst there are intriguing orchestral flourishes, the defining feel is minimal and skeletal. The group arrangements are deft and thoughtful in delaying the entries of certain instruments – with Colin Greenwood’s bass proving particularly adaptable in this regard. This leaves plenty of room for the studio-enhanced atmospherics and orchestral colourings. Mood and texture are key elements of this vivid, compelling music – it never sounds overly dense or cluttered.

These songs have, in what is now traditional for Radiohead, been developed over a long period of time, and tested in live performance. There’s little sign of the supposed conflict and frustration that tends to result from this process though. Radiohead now sound not just fascinated by the possibilities of the studio for enhancing their compositions, but also a band working supremely well together. Just listen to the nimble interplay between Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars on the evocative ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ or the thrilling rush of ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Pieces’.

Also fascinating is the way the group are very effectively subsuming a greater variety of musical stylings into their overall sound. The beautiful ‘House Of Cards’ is ushered in on a deceptively light reggae drum beat, whilst the opening ’15 Steps’ betrays influences from the worlds of techno, dubstep and jazz, its off-kilter 5/4 rhythm immediately taking it to a place where most rock music dare not travel. The first half of ‘All I Need’ perhaps recalls Portishead or Massive Attack, with whom Radiohead have always shared a somewhat claustrophobic, paranoid vision. There’s also more than a hint of the influence of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk in the creative use of space in this music, particularly on the boldly minimal closer ‘Videotape’ or the superb ‘Reckoner’. The latter manages to combine Hollis’ gift for restrained impressionism with an almost funky groove.

Unfortunately, there’s still a massive gulf between the imagination and invention of the group’s music and the poor quality of Thom Yorke’s lyrics. He hasn’t yet spoken much about ‘In Rainbows’ but has said that, if it has a theme, it is about ‘anonymous fear - the kind of fear you get when sitting in a traffic jam and feeling you should be doing something else’. The band’s music now captures this Ballardian disconnection with consummate clarity, but Yorke’s lyrics remain detached fragments of vague rumination, never really capturing feeling and certainly never finding concrete solutions. Whilst his voice is not dehumanised here as it was in parts of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, it’s still very much an integrated part of the wider whole rather than a lead instrument. His enunciation is deliberately poor, and the lyrics are frequently either very loose ideas or simply difficult to determine. I wonder now why he bothers writing them at all. Wordless songs would surely better convey his feelings of alienation and frustration, or would at least do so in a less repetitive manner. There’s a really predictable tone to some of his statements here (‘Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen’, ‘I’m an animal in your hot car’, ‘You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking’, ‘Everybody leaves if they get the chance’ etc).

Luckily, the sound of his voice is still remarkable in its emotional force. This is particularly the case with his deployment of a pinched, nasal falsetto on the exquisite ‘Nude’, an effect that really heightens the song’s impact. He’s hushed almost to a whisper on the acoustic ‘Faust ARP’, strangely reminiscent of Nick Drake with its Robert Kirby-inspired string arrangement. By way of contrast, he gets unusually aggressive on the strident, angry ‘Bodysnatchers’, the most dirty and distorted work the group have crafted in some time. It sounds as if it was recorded in a tin shack, with Yorke shouting through his grievances from outside the door. Some have emphasised that this is Radiohead’s most straightforwardly melodic record in a while. ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Nude’ aside, I’m not sure I agree with this – it seems to be far more about effect, implication and mood than about clearly stated themes.

‘OK Computer’ probably remains the group’s most popular release both critically and commercially because of its more reductive ‘anthemic’ qualities, many of which have been borrowed wholesale by numerous less talented artists lacking Radiohead's nuance and sensitivity (Muse, Keane and Coldplay spring immediately to mind). Radiohead have long since jettisoned any pretence at stadium dynamics. Even the decade-old ‘Nude’ sounds much more subtle and controlled in this context than it would have if recorded for ‘OK Computer’. It’s perhaps possible to argue that their music has occasionally risked becoming a little cold and sterile as a result of this thoughtfulness. I have the sense though that ‘In Rainbows’ has restored some humanity and possibly even some soul to their music. ‘Nude’, ‘All I Need’ and, particularly, ‘House Of Cards’ (one of the group’s most affecting songs to date) have a lush romanticism beneath their veneer of existential angst.

It’s tempting to conclude that, ten years on from ‘OK Computer’, ‘In Rainbows’ not only emphasises how prescient that album was in its refusal to follow the prevailing optimistic winds, but also how little the Blair-era actually achieved in changing the political and social landscape of Britain. I suspect, though, that once the cultural and political resonances of ‘OK Computer’ have worn off (if indeed they ever do), this powerful, highly inventive and pleasingly concise record may come to be seen as the pinnacle of Radiohead’s achievements. Like all their previous works, it rewards close attention and repeated listening. It’s too easy to take cheap shots at this band for their vaunting ambitions and unashamed high-mindedness. With U2 disintegrating into a mire of laughable blandness and REM worryingly looking to the superficial, self-regarding sheen of producer Jacknife Lee for their next record, there is no other globally successful rock group working at this level of creativity and invention. I can see a rainbow and it’s worth singing about it.

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